Americans remember

September 11, 2014

As today is the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans remember those who gave so much on that day and the military that continues to give.

But name the major countries bordering Iraq? Where is Afghanistan? Most people cannot answer those questions with accuracy. 

Though the United States has been in the longest war in its history in the Middle East, few people have a true understanding of what it’s like in those countries and what our military is facing over there, according to LTC Thomas J. Stokes, U.S. Army Reserves Social Worker, who recently completed a tenure as Commander of the 328th Medical Detachment Combat and Operational Stress Control Unit based in Coraopolis.

“There is a military-civilian disconnect,” he said recently at Penn Highlands at the second annual “Returning Veterans and their Families: Putting the Pieces Back Together” program sponsored by Behavioral Health Services at Penn Highlands Healthcare, Organizational Development at PH DuBois and Service Access & Management, Inc. and Community Connections of Clearfield/Jefferson Counties.

Those coming home from war are isolated and lonely. “We toil in anonymity,” Stokes said.

Some people may say “Thank you for your service!” when they discover someone served. But to some veterans, those words have lost their meaning.  “It allows the civilian world to go back to their daily lives feeling like a good American because they thanked a veteran today, without taking any ownership of their sentiments,” a solider, Ky Hunter, wrote.

Less than 1 percent of the population of the U.S. serves in the military. There’s another 99 people out of 100 who have no idea what a veteran is going through.

To help, one has to understand what it’s like for a returning veteran and that starts with understanding the veteran’s individual journey.

The military journey is unpredictable, Stokes said. People deploy with an idea of what they may be expected to do in theater and often that does not happen. We live with uncertainty and change. Though it’s easy to stereotype vets, each veteran’s experience is as different as snowflakes. 

Today’s military is not like the past. Many are not active duty or regular military. They are National Guard and Reservists. That means they are leaving a civilian job, home and worries when deployed. Their entire family is affected, too, and that weighs heavy on military members’ minds.

Before leaving, they are told to have a power of attorney form ready along with their wills. This can be a shock into reality, especially for younger people. There is also a profound impact on children who have a parent, and sometimes parents, who are sent to serve.

LTC Stokes provided a description of the context of the setting in Afghanistan. While in a combat zone, a person’s flight or fight response is elevated. The bases are surrounded with box-like structures filled with dirt with a barbed wire fence on top of them. Some members of the military described it like being in prison. And it’s dusty. In Iraq, there is a lot of sand. In Afghanistan, the gray dirt in the air is overwhelming. 

For those serving in the Middle East, there are rules against alcohol, gambling and anything sexual. While there, there is a lot of time to talk, and people bond.

Even going home is stressful. The military members are losing a culture and a group of friends. There is a language barrier at home. They have spoken in nicknames or acronyms for a length of time. They experience is a loss of having a mission or goal, a loss of relationships and lack of a challenge.

Upon coming home, military vets are finding that the public’s concept of military life is shaped by the media. Many don’t understand what a person has been though.

Talking is important and a veteran sharing his or her story is powerfully therapeutic. The more people tell their stories, the better they can process their experiences and allow for their coping skills to emerge and grab hold. Remember, service members are resilient, Stokes said, but it takes time. 

Stokes advises to keep it simple and allow for that person to share their experience to the extent they feel comfortable. Some questions that may be helpful include:
Who were you with?
What job did you do there?
When were you there?
Where were you located?
What made you join?

Veterans want to be understood. Keeping feelings and thoughts in doesn’t help. And something has to change.

Twenty-two veterans per day commit suicide. That may be a low estimate based on how they are counted, Stokes said. 

How else can someone help? Assure a veteran that it is normal to take time to adjust. Don’t push a veteran to make big decisions and limit responsibilities.  Help him or her find someone professionally to talk to, if needed. Above all, ensure that you present as a genuinely sincere person who is willing to simply engage in meaningful dialogue.