Response to Fort Hood -- a Bigger Picture

A lot of postulating about what to do with veterans in our country was already happening prior to the shootings at Fort Hood last week. We've seen an unsurprising spike of these conversations following the tragedy.

I've been a part of the conversation in some small way but would like to focus for a minute on a few numbers and statistics, rather than the individual situation:

  • Three years ago, on Veterans Day 2011 there were 2,317,761 men and women in uniform. Out of that number, roughly 58.2 percent or 1,348,405 had been deployed since the 9/11/01 attacks . Compare this to 4 million men and women who were deployed during World War II and the total population of 23 million plus total veterans in the country today.
  • Veterans Affairs report, as of January 30th, 2014, an estimated 11-20 percent of veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compare this to 10 percent for Gulf War I veterans and 30 percent for Vietnam Veterans. In the general population of the United States it is estimated 5.2 million adults have PTSD during any given year with 7 to 8 percent of the population having PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • I believe, the numbers from the VA to be low. The VA diagnosed me with PTSD but then denied my claim telling me I got my issues from somewhere other than my time in Baghdad, Iraq. I also agree with the VA, and others, when they point out that the number of people who go through trauma (roughly half of all people in America, though I would argue that number is closer to 100 percent) is far larger than the far smaller percent that go on from that trauma to develop PTSD.

    I also believe, that regardless of diagnosis, all veterans need support in the transition from military life to veteran and civilian life and that this transition is not often an easy one. However, there is at least one takeaway our entire country would do well to remember from a quick look at the above data points: Even if 100 percent of veterans and service members who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan had PTSD, the general population living with PTSD outnumbers veterans 5:1.

    We need to do more across the board to understand trauma and create positive frameworks of responsible, positive action following negative events. What's more, we need to work to minimize trauma in general. With the military, that should be easier than the general population: we should limit the opportunities for when we as a country engage in combat or proxy combat like drone warfare.

    A few other things not seen in the numbers:

    1. Veterans, like the population at large are not a monolithic block of feeling, experiences, political view-points, heroes or villains. Like the population at large, there are veterans who are jerks, who are lazy and who are manipulative. I'd like to think the percentages might be lower in those who served, because they did at least chose to serve, then in the general population, but I don't know that to be true.
    2. A nation, as well as a population of veterans with a higher degree of compassion to other peoples' experiences, good or bad, and a recognition that there are far more things that we share in common than those things which separate us, regardless of military experience. This would create a country where, when feeling down or blue, aggravated or angry, we all would be more willing to reach out for help.
    3. Getting help and reaching out, regardless of a PTSD diagnosis, depression or not, we all have bad days and we all need one another to make it through this life. We're far stronger together than we are apart.
    4. Treatment, recovery, support and help, are also not the same, nor should they be the same for each person. We need to create opportunities for all people to be regarded as individuals and not assigned into easy categories with easy distributions of canned responses.

    There are only two constants I believe that remain true for all people, especially those with mental health injuries like PTSD:

    1. We need community. We need a place to belong, to feel loved and to give love.
    2. We need to get outside and experience the world without screens or climate control in whatever ways we can to breath clean air and to drink just as deeply from clean water.

    Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.