Moving A Nation to Care
[Ilona Meagher, editor of PTSD Combat, sent me an advance copy of her forthcoming book, Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops. Being a dutiful admirer of her work, I wrote the following review.]
Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops is a timely and important reminder that war’s costs are often more subtle than the obvious dead and wounded casualties. Regardless of one’s view of the wisdom of any particular war, author Ilona Meagher clearly demonstrates that the psychological wounds of war require as much attention as the more visibly injured. Achingly illustrated with examples of soldiers’ experiences after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Moving A Nation to Care is a wake-up call to the wider public who may be tempted to dismiss the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder as something that veterans must simply "get over" upon returning to civilian life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is nothing new; it has been a consequence of war since ancient times. Nor is it limited to combat veterans. Ms. Meagher quotes the National Center for PTSD which defines it as "...a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents or violent personal assaults like rape." Any such trauma is likely to remain with individuals who experience them and affect their ability to function in society. But unlike accidents or even assaults, military combat occurs by the conscious decision of the nation. In going to war, society asks men and women to violate one of the most basic commandments: thou shall not kill.
In combat, the individual must be able to kill other human beings. Ms. Meagher shows how the modern American military trains soldiers to ignore this fundamental taboo. In the maelstrom of combat, when one’s own and one’s comrades lives are at risk, killing is a matter of survival. When the combat ends and the soldier returns to civilian life, the memories of those acts haunt many veterans, some more than others, often with tragic results. In contrast to the intensive training that conditions individuals to kill others, the military offers no opportunity for the soldier to decompress, no cleansing ritual to assist veterans in coming down from this extremely intense and even exhilarating experience.
Instead, individuals are left to fight their own personal wars as they relive and ponder their actions while the nation that sent them into combat holds on to an an image of war as noble and gallant. The all too vivid examples of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, murder and suicide in Moving A Nation to Care show that families, friends and the veterans themselves often pay the high cost of combat. If anything, the examples are overwhelming. I found myself dreading each new name because all too often the name introduced a story that ended in death. As difficult as reading these stories may be, however, the examples are necessary to bring attention to something society would rather ignore–the full cost of war.
Fortunately, Moving A Nation to Care is more than a litany of death and despair. It is also the story of activists–veterans and their families–like James Blake Miller, a veteran of the 2004 Marine assault on Fallujah. A photograph of Miller, battle weary, his face covered in dirt and blood, became an icon of Iraq combat, the "perfect image of a valiant and virtuous warrior". These days "...outspoken and open to a fault, suffering with PTSD, Miller no longer represents the mythic soldier. Yet his bluntness is the dose of reality we need...[he] asks us to consider the costs of war for the individual rather than endlessly, and mindlessly, perpetuating the myths of gallant battles and Teflon warriors." Captain Stefanie Pelkey, the widow of Captain Michael Jon Pelkey who committed suicide as a result of PTSD from his year in Iraq is another activist. So are Kevin and Joyce Lucey, whose son Jeffrey also took his own life after returning from Iraq. These dedicated individuals are helping tear down the Defense Department’s "wall of silence regarding PTSD" asking why, in preparing for war, was care for returning troops basically ignored?
For all that Ilona Meagher does in bringing this important issue to the public, even more significant, is the list of resources for concerned citizens presented in the final chapter. This chapter is Ms. Meagher’s effort to "move a nation to care". It offers sources for understanding the experience of war, how to communicate with returning veterans, opportunities for political action and page after page of organizations offering assistance and support to veterans and their families.
As a Vietnam veteran whose combat experience was mild compared to so many described in Moving A Nation to Care, I can appreciate its value. We returned from Vietnam to a nation unaware of PTSD. Many of us were ourselves largely unaware of PTSD. All we wanted was to get on with our lives, only to find that the war we thought we’d left behind had come home with us. Patient efforts by activists finally forced the nation and the Veterans Administration to begin addressing this problem. As the stories in Moving A Nation to Care illustrate, much work still remains if America is to fully heal the psychological wounds of war. Ilona Meagher’s thorough and well documented research is a valuable resource for all those who truly want to support the troops.
Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops by Ilona Meagher. IG Publishing. Available May 2007.