Friday, March 16, 2007

Montana Iraq Vet Suicide Reflects VA, Military System Failure

From a guest opinion column in the Billings Gazette:

My step-brother Chris Dana committed suicide last week. Chris was a combat veteran and truly one of Montana's heroes. Chris was seriously injured during his combat tour in Iraq with the Montana Army National Guard and we ended up losing him to the effects of this injury.

Tell-tale signs of PTSD

Chris's injury wasn't obvious, but it is common. He suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The statistics vary, but PTSD likely affects at least one out of every five service members returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is no excuse for the state of Montana's failure to provide its service members and their families with an effective treatment program for this common and devastating injury.

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Nothing more clearly demonstrates the failure of the current system than the fact that Chris had to die for the state of Montana to recognize him as an injured hero. Before Chris' death, his unit was in the process of serving him with a dishonorable discharge. Chris was receiving this dishonorable discharge because he demonstrated tell-tale signs of PTSD, withdrawal from society and an inability to participate in military functions. Four days after Chris' death, the state of Montana buried him as a hero, with Lt. Gov. Bohlinger and Maj. Gen. Mosley in attendance. The irony could not be any more appalling.

Montana's current system for caring for its service members with PTSD relies on the injured service members to reach out to the military for help. The combination of the self-reliant nature of men and women that are brave enough to volunteer for combat missions and an injury that forces victims into self-seclusion doom the voluntary counseling system to failure.

The failure of this system led the state of Montana to begin prosecuting my stepbrother for displaying the symptoms of his injury. They were prosecuting him in the name of every citizen of the state of Montana and that ridiculous prosecution undoubtedly contributed to Chris's death.

We need a massive cultural mind shift in both military and society. Rather than leaving service members to drown in their experience, demanding that they make the transition home from war on their own (or leaving it to their families to pick up the pieces), we must push for proactive and holistic care for every veteran returning to our society.

Certainly all troops should be allowed a certain period of time to return to their families following deployment; but all returning troops should have to attend some form of structured decompression and war cleansing program a month or so following their return to the states. What about troops that feel they don't need this type of transitional training? Should they be forced to take part? Yes, say many military family members. Perhaps those who are doing better can serve different roles in such a program, extending themselves to and helping those having a harder transition period.

It should be the responsibility of our military -- and our society -- to ensure such a safety net becomes a reality. This family member is demanding no less of Montana (see rest of the piece); we should demand no less of our country.

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