Soldiers returning from war with emotional scars is as old as war itself.
There is also nothing new about soldiers having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. There are stories written about ancient Rome using the labor of soldiers to build aquaducts and other public works as a way to employ soldiers and to keep former fighting units together and occupied so they did not return to Rome and become a burden on society.
It was not named as such, but the ancients understood the potential for post-traumatic stress disorder -- PTSD -- and further understood that someone who has spent many years killing on behalf of the state needed time and space to transition to civilian life.
Two men, who served in different wars more than 60 years apart and completely unknown to one another, came to the same very interesting conclusions on this topic.
The first was my father-in-law, who saw plenty of action on the Korean Peninsula. He was what the Army called a horizontal engineer. He built bridges and roads to help get ground forces from point A to point B. He also blew up bridges and roads to keep the enemy from advancing, or sometimes from retreating. His daily tools were a shovel and a gun.
The second man is currently ranked as a sergeant first class. He is an Army Ranger, and has served on the front lines as well as behind enemy lines. His years of service to our nation have left him no longer combat able, yet he still serves stateside at one of the largest bases in the country.
In addition to his many regular official duties, he and every other non-commissioned officer serve unofficially as a counselor for the soldiers returning from the battlefield, helping them to adjust to stateside and civilian life, which often includes responsibilities as young husbands and fathers.
Both men talk about how troops from former conflicts were returned home. They were put on a ship for a month. During that month, the soldiers beat the crap out of each other, sat around and talked about their families, cried with one another over lost brothers in arms, revisited combat missions, and in general vented emotionally and physically.
By the time they got off that ship, they were ready to return home to their families, as whole and adjusted as those who had just been to hell ever could be.
Both men in their own way say they believe Vietnam vets had a harder time in part because of the way they were brought home. A soldier could be standing in a rice paddy surrounded by enemy fire or creeping through a jungle on patrol one minute and, thanks to the miracle of air travel, be standing on his own front porch 72 hours later.
Gone was that all important long trip home, confined with others who had just lived through the same hell and who were going to face the same realities of adjusting to a civilian world that could never understand what they experienced.
Adding insult to injury was the way returning Nam vets were treated. They were told it was best to change into their civilian clothes on the plane or at the airport. The message was loud and clear: Don’t talk about what you’ve just been through if you want to have a peaceful life, regardless of whether your interior life was anything but peaceful.
The Army has learned, at least a little. Now, when troops are returning home, they go through “reintegration” for seven days before being sent back to their families. There are endless hours of paperwork, classes and talk about what to watch for in themselves and in their buddies.
Every officer, non-commissioned officer and civilian employee on a base is trained to look for signs of depression, mood swings and "maladjustment." Everyone carries around a laminated, business card-sized ACE card.
ACE stands for A=Ask the Veteran, C=Care for the Veteran, E=Escort the Veteran, and delineates what to do and say, how to act and how to get additional help, including hot line phone numbers. The reverse side gives practical directions and instructions on what to watch for, warning signs that someone is in trouble or “in a dark place.”
Still, it is a poor substitute for the camaraderie, automatic understanding and, yes, the opportunity to pound the hell out of each other, according to the sergeant to whom I spoke.
For men and women who have been physically trained to the point of a fine-tuned machine, that physicality is an important component of the release needed after spending the better part of a year on a battlefield.
To partially compensate, the Army has instituted a series of competitions, called combatives. These contests are timed to coincide with a brigade’s return to their stateside base, officially to help soldiers maintain the physical fitness level they achieved while deployed.
The fact that it gives soldiers the opportunity to legally and officially release aggression and excess emotion may not be touted by command, but it is certainly one of the big draws for the soldiers. These mixed martial arts-style bouts are as popular for the spectators as they are for the participants.
There is one other significant point that these two soldiers from two different wars and generations agree on. The media will sensationalize, at the expense of anyone, whatever they can, in the name of ratings. And they won’t let little things like facts or common sense, much like common decency, get in their way.
There was a recent segment on one of those self-proclaimed expert’s shows about the terrible things veterans suffering from PTSD do to their families and loved ones. This loud-mouthed social parasite even used the word “monsters” in the title of his segment.
The reaction was instantaneous. Vets and veterans rights groups across the country decried the irresponsibility of painting all who suffer from PTSD as violent or potentially violent and a danger to society.
Vets are currently among those who have the highest rates of unemployment. While activists and lawmakers are seeking ways to encourage the hiring of veterans, irresponsible media coverage is undermining those efforts by making the general public think hiring a vet is asking for trouble.
It is only a matter of time, they are seeming to say, until a veteran snaps. The simple truth is that there are over 1.2 million active duty members in the combined Armed Forces. If one vet per week has a catastrophic PTSD-related event, while still one too many, the percentages do not warrant an overreaction by the media or the general public.
But, since PTSD is the new buzzword, it grabs headlines.
I wonder if there really is no middle ground. Will it always be either a complete denial that some have difficulties from genuine PTSD or that every soldier is a ticking PTSD time bomb? As a nation, we can and must do better. We owe it to the ones we failed in the past not to fail again.