The War on Terror at Home

Here’s a little known truth – America has lost more troops to suicide over the past two years than to combat. In 2009, suicides among active duty personnel exceeded those killed in battle.

That’s a startling fact even if you don’t consider the haphazard fashion in which the Armed Services tracks death-by-suicide. The Air Force and Marines, for instance, do not include any non-mobilized reservists in their tally. Veterans who have retired from active-duty aren’t figured into the Department of Defense total. And nobody is keeping track of the military spouses who are taking their own lives.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real problem for our military families. It is another type of War on Terror that our military families bear alone. Getting help is complicated, especially given that this is the first-time our nation has relied so heavily on our reservists to do our fighting for us.

Knowing these facts as I do – both as journalist and as the daughter of a soldier killed in action – I have made a point to reach out to the military families in this area. In Oregon, where there is no military installation, readjustment can be particularly difficult for returning reservist troops and their families.

These troops are expected to go about their lives as if they hadn’t just been to war, hadn’t just had to fight for their very lives and that of their buddies. They are expected to ease back into the communities with soaring unemployment rates, which means if they didn’t have a job before they left, it’s unlikely they are going to be able to find one now. They are going to have a lot of free time to think about all the things they haven’t had time to think about during all those deployments.

Nightmares will not be restrained to lights out. Tempers will flare. Harsh words will be exchanged. Tears will be shed. Some will drink too much. Some will pop too many pills. Almost all of them will seek ways to isolate themselves so that their loved ones aren’t hurt by what’s hurting them.

And, yet, for most of us PTSD won’t be a problem. Not our problem anyway.

That’s what Public Relations spokesman Mark Ettesvold of Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston said when I called to suggest that the hospital might want to consider hosting a PTSD class for the community-at-large, given that our local troops are set to arrive back from a tour in Iraq sometime over the next week.

“I didn’t even know we had troops deployed,” Ettesvold said.

You’d think it would behoove a media relations specialist to read the local paper and to familiarize one’s self with such matters, wouldn’t you?

But no matter, Ettesvold went on to say, “We don’t offer mental health services at Good Shepherd. You might try contacting Public Health.”

“What do you mean you don’ t offer mental health services? I thought you were a hospital.”

“We are,” he said. “But we can only specialize in so many areas. You really should try Public Health.”

“So if a soldier comes home and attempts to take his own life, I suppose you’d be treating his mental health issues then, right?”

“Not necessarily,” Ettesvold said.

There was really no point in trying to educate Ettesvold. He’s only a symptom of a much larger problem. One that’s been going on for the past 10 years, ever since this War on Terror got underway.

We aren’t really a nation at war – just those chosen few.

The ones we keep ignoring.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The first sentence you wrote keeps replaying in my mind. I see it filling the entire space of billboard after billboard along our freeways and highways. And beneath the large print of that sentence, this question in smaller black letters: COMMUNITY ELDERS, WHERE ARE YOU?

    If we are going to have an all-volunteer military so that most citizens are not inconvenienced by serving, then we do need to be inconvenienced by being the all-volunteer mental health and support network to our military families. Time for the wise and experienced ones among us to call the community together, assign tasks, take responsibility. It won’t happen unless we do it.

  • So painful, but true. Our community leaders need to learn to take their blinders off. This is something that should upset everyone, but sadly, it’s barely on anyone’s mind. Something needs to be done.

  • Wanda

    Good, good, good, Karen. Thanks for addressing this.

  • Gloria

    I was listening to the news before I read this and August was the deadliest month so far for our deployed troops. 66 have been killed. Then I read this and my heart is overflowing with grief. Having a son who is in the all volunteer army this all hits very hard. Thank you for taking up the banner. I pledge to help carry it in any way I can.

  • As the daughter of a soldier man who returned in the 70’s, only to die at the bottom of a bottle, these statistics are wrenching. Do you find that these military men and woman are a proud lot, sometimes to their detriment? I have reached out only to be shunned. What do we do? Adopt one family at a time? But without their knowing or thinking it’s some form of service? They don’t want pity or “help.” The tough exterior is hard to get through.

    This makes me so very sad.


  • Jake

    It’s not just PTSD that is being ignored by our health system. The signature injury of the war on terror is Traumatic Brain Injury. A helmet may stop shrapnel from an IED, but it doesn’t stop the shock wave from an explosion from making the brain bounce off the inside of the skull causing a TBI. Nerve cells tear which disrupts circuits, which causes all sorts of symptoms. Recovery is often partial, and is measured in years or decades. At present our health care system is unwilling or unable to undertake the level of rehabilitation necessary to support TBI survivors.

    • Jake: You’re certainly right about the TBI. It’s TBI; it’s PTSD; it’s returning to no work and a community that doesn’t know/care; it’s returning to a community w/o a permanent military facility and feeling isolated and invisible; it’s returning to the family that has changed, too, because they’ve also lived with the trauma of daily fear.

      When I did my clincal at the local VA hospital six years ago, I saw so many worn and tired men, often younger than myself but looking much older. I said at the time, so many could make great progress if they were fighting only one thing. But, no. For so many it was COPD due to tobacco abuse, liver damage due to alcohol and medication or drug abuse, heart and kidney damage and/or diabetes due to diet and all of the above. And that was just the physical stuff they ended up with as a result of military life, war and the mental health issues. The prescriptions that some of these men had already swallowed by the time they were in their late 50’s was enough to choke a horse several times over.