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Protecting Those Who Serve

 

Congress is poised to enact legislation to make it legal for military mental health counselors (and commanders) to discuss personal firearms with soldiers considered at risk for suicide. That’s right, it is currently illegal to discuss ownership (and any use of) personal firearms with soldiers identified as potentially suicidal. 6 out of 10 military suicides are by firearm (similar to the rate of non-military suicides.) Now before we all collectively smack ourselves on the forehead and exclaim a universal; “Duh” let’s think this through.

The military is acknowledging that there are mental health issues that need to be addressed. The Pentagon and Congress are willing to even consider wading into “don’t you come near my gun” political territory. The military culture is showing signs it is willing to change. Culture is not easy to change. A culture whose very existence is based on rules, regulations, defense, solidarity, and yes; firearms, is showing some flexibility. They seem to be willing to admit that there is a problem that needs to be addressed holistically.

At first blush discussing (personal) gun ownership with someone who may be a danger to him/herself seems rather straightforward. No one is confiscating the gun(s) or demanding they be relinquished (perhaps that will come with time.) The potentially lifesaving measure being considered by Congress is merely a conversation about guns. But this is the military we’re talking about. There are people who consider personal gun ownership to be a very important part of who they are and of their patriotism. Knowing that the subject may not be private could have an effect on a soldier’s willingness to discuss mental health issues. Living in a closed environment (a military base) one might guard his/her privacy. Living on a base (with a gun store!) surrounded by people openly carrying guns, it could feel very stigmatizing to have your gun ownership questioned.

All of this is not to suggest that there should ever be any gag rules around mental health and safety. But it is worth noting that military+mental health+right to bear arms= a minefield. Any move towards open and direct conversation about military mental health and safety should be encouraged. Could this step (of removing the speech restraint) be the first of many necessary steps? Will soldiers identified as being at risk have all firearms confiscated? Could we someday live in a world in which people with mental illness do not have access to guns? Why not? Think of all the changes in safety and in illness awareness in just the last thirty years. Seat belt use was once optional (if they existed at all,) the words “breast cancer” were whispered (if uttered at all,) the intellectually and physically challenged were definitely not mainstreamed, and many people with mental illness suffered in silence. As a culture we’ve demonstrated we are capable of change. If an organization defined by tradition and rigidity can take this first step, just think what the rest of us could do!

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Over Here

It’s Memorial Day and somewhere between the sales, barbecues, summer rentals and beach, we will honor those who died while in the military.  There will be beautiful and touching ceremonies and some lovely parades.  If you are lucky enough to come upon a person in uniform, you might even have the opportunity to give thanks.

And tomorrow will be Tuesday, and we will go on with our lives and joys of summer.  Wouldn’t it be great if we really did honor those who serve?  Thousands have died in Iraq and Afghanistan but hundreds of thousands have returned.  Due to advances in medicine and weaponry, some of these soldiers have survived devastating injuries.  Head injuries alone, account for survival of injuries previously unknown.  Advances in mobile medical treatment and robotics, mean soldiers with severe and multiple amputations are coming home.  For the soldiers’ families, and often for the soldiers themselves, it’s a blessing to be home.

For some, coming home is only a euphemism.  They may have joined the military, partly to have a place to live.  They may be coming back to families who have lost their home.  They may have injuries that prevent them from being in their home.  (Most homes are not wheelchair accessible.)  They may not be able to find any work, or work that is suited to their new self.

The number of Iraq and Afghanistan homeless veterans are rapidly rising.  (You can understand why the Veteran’s Administration doesn’t have actual data on this phenomenon.)  Like any homeless population there is not one path to the status.  Soldiers with head injuries (the invisible injury) can have a very challenging time resuming a normal life.  Some soldiers may have entered the military with a sensibility unsuited to the shock and awe they experienced over there.  Some soldiers return to civilian life feeling overwhelming unsettled by now being a civilian.

There are some injuries and experiences from which one never recovers.  But every person, most of all those who have put themselves in danger in the name of national security, deserves basic help.  A soldier deserves a home.  Whether we need to modify their current home, or create veteran housing (perhaps with all those empty military bases and prisons.)  A soldier deserves job training and placement (cue W.P.A.)  And perhaps less sexy and sound bite, a soldier deserves lifetime mental health care.

These are not difficult or even expensive undertakings.  These are not “sending a man to the moon” or even “war on drugs” expenditures.  These are basic human rights.  All the flag waving in the world doesn’t change the fact that for many returning soldiers, our country has let them down.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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