AS A 31-year Navy veteran, I'm grateful for the
editorial on veterans and share your concern that few Americans are as aware of the true meaning of Memorial Day as they should be, and even fewer continue to recognize its purpose once it's passed.
A recent survey sponsored by Blue Star Mothers of America found that 94 percent of the military families polled felt they were disconnected from our society. The group represents the relatively few American families touched by our current conflicts. When we consider that less than one percent of our population is directly involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's all the more important that we never take those who are serving and waiting for granted.
After a Memorial Day of somber reflection and celebration of our nation's heroes, we should all refer to the powerful testimony about mental health offered before Congress by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg recently. Dr. Romberg is the founder of Give an Hour, a national nonprofit providing free mental-health services to returning troops.
Of the 1.9 million men and women who have been deployed, some for as many as four or five tours, more than 800,000 are parents. Dr. Romberg notes that studies link "depression, anxiety and emotional disorders in children to a parent's deployment." Referring to the difficulties for spouses of service members, she cites a 2008 study finding that "Army spouses were seen to have rates of mental health problems comparable to the rates among soldiers."
As for the men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, many go outside the wire every day for entire 15- month deployments, not knowing if the car beside them, or even a person walking down the street, will explode. A 2008 Army survey reported that more than one in eight soldiers in these conflicts take anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications or sleeping pills. Yet the number of behavioral health workers in the theater of combat decreased from one for every 387 troops in 2004 to one for every 734 in 2007.
The challenges of helping veterans of current conflicts are compounded by the fact that we have not, for three generations, appropriately dealt with the psychological impact of war on our warriors. Thomas Childers, author of the recently published "Soldiers from the War Returning," uncovered 1.3 million hospitalizations for neuropsychiatric symptoms during WW II. He found that divorce filings by vets were twice the civilian rate, and, in January 1946, only 6,000 of the 52,000 disabled veterans who applied for jobs found employment.
During my lifetime our nation broke faith with our Vietnam veterans. The severe recessions of 1969 and 1974 did much to complicate the return of that generation, and those men and women came home not only to a struggling economy, but also to a lesser GI Bill than their fathers and a VA unprepared to deal with the unique nature of that war and the changes to our society since the 1940s. Partly as a result of these past failures, as well as the stress of today's military operations, one in four homeless Americans are veterans and every day 18 vets commit suicide.
Our state Army National Guard 56th Stryker Brigade is scheduled to return home in the fall from its largest deployment since WW II.
When they left their jobs for the long preparations for that deployment, we had a very different economy. They will come home to high unemployment and an economy struggling to recover from a more severe crisis than the '70s. Many will try to enter the workforce while dealing with the psychological effects of combat.
ICALL ON all Americans to support the remarkable organizations like Give an Hour, Home and Healing and others trying to ensure vets and their families receive the treatment they need to lead productive, fulfilling civilian lives.
We in government must address the study cited in the editorial that found nearly half of the soldiers leaving Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD are not being treated by establishing a mandatory, confidential, systematic approach for evaluating our troops for PTSD and other brain injuries.
I am actively engaged with the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and the Widener University Veterans Law Clinic to address the administrative and medical aspects of this issue.
As George Washington so eloquently put it:
"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation." *
U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak is a Democrat who represents the 7th District.