Coming Home: What the Future Holds for Our Veterans and their Families
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen
The men and women who serve in the U.S. military are a dedicated and determined collection of individuals. They are young and not so young. They are single and married, with children and without. They are straight and gay, financially stable and barely scraping by. And they are from all races and all communities. They are highly skilled, well trained, and impressively hard-working. They withstand a level of physical and psychological strain that most of us would neither choose nor be able to tolerate. They witness brutality and suffering that we can barely imagine.
Over the last decade they have deployed and returned only to leave again. They have been injured by wounds that we can see and others that we cannot. We owe them so much, and yet our resource-rich society continues to struggle to provide the care, support, and opportunities they need and deserve when they come home.
Our military families are equally impressive. They are intensely devoted to our soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. They sacrifice regularly and complain rarely. They are parents and spouses and children and partners. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, and our friends. They worry, they grieve, and they carry on. And many have become caretakers for those who are injured, giving up their own hopes and dreams to care for those they love. Many of them are now struggling with mental health issues of their own—the understandable psychological effects of war on those who wait and watch for a loved one’s return. Our nation needs to ensure that we care for them, and their children, properly.
It is not surprising that we are seeing concerning signs of the psychological wear and tear of a decade of war on our military personnel and their families. The recent report issued by the Army, Generating Health & Discipline in the Force, 2012, presents important information about progress made by the Department of Defense to protect and ensure the mental health and well-being of our soldiers. It also includes information regarding concerns that remain and some that have grown. Perhaps most important, this report is an open and honest discussion about the issues that affect—and sometimes damage—those who protect and defend us.
According to the Army’s report, there has been a dramatic increase in the capacity to respond to the behavioral health needs of the force, an increase in leader involvement, and possibly a reduction of the stigma associated with seeking care for those with mental health concerns. In addition, the Army has made vast improvements in understanding the effects of many of the physical and behavioral health conditions that service members have experienced, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and depression. Yet we continue to see an increase in the negative consequences related to these conditions and in the number of suicide attempts and suicides among military personnel and veterans. Focusing solely on the projected rate of post-traumatic stress for this population provides a glimpse of the enormity of the issue. Recent research suggests that approximately 20 percent or more of the over 2 million service members deployed since 9/11 will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This translates to a population of 472,000 service members as of September 2011.
The Army also reports concern over the rise in crime among service personnel. Of particular note is the continued high incidence of both violent sex crimes and drug offenses. Sadly, violent behavior has also spilled over into the lives of our military families. There has been a dramatic increase in domestic violence and child-abuse referrals to the Army’s Family Advocacy Program. The good news is that referrals are being made; the bad news is that too many spouses and children are being harmed.
The negative impact of a decade of war on the mental health of those who serve and their loved ones is understandable, complex, and concerning. Not all develop significant mental health concerns—but all are affected. Not all need mental health treatment—but all deserve our recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices they have made. Our task is to continue our efforts to reach those in need and provide the care and support that will allow them to heal from the painful wounds of war.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen Bio
Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour™, is a licensed clinical psychologistLearn More