I’m not a military veteran. I did a year of ROTC at Ohio State in the late 1960s. During those tumultuous times, when the draft was alive and looming, campus unrest was a constant. In my naiveté, I figured I’d enroll in ROTC to become a military officer. I wasn’t thinking clearly on the subject in those days.
The real reason I enrolled in the army training program was to avoid taking some otherwise required undergraduate math courses. Math was never my strong suit, which is one reason I pursued a law degree in later years. ROTC was not fun. Because I have a terrible sense of direction, I flunked map reading, and I hated marching in a hot and itchy wool uniform, hup one-ing and hup two-ing. I could take apart and reassemble an M16 in about twice the time as my classmates. My heart and mind weren’t in it.
Saved by the Draw
The first draft lottery took place the evening of December 1, 1969. My number was 302—too high to expose me to the draft. The next day, I withdrew from ROTC, which upset the regular army instructors. The Vietnam War was still hot and ugly. The government didn’t end the military draft until January 27, 1973—ours remains a voluntary military.
During my two years in the California prison system (2003–2005), I encountered many men who had military experience from different military theaters, ranging from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. These men were interesting; they stood out from the rest of the prison population. They were usually older and more educated than their nonveteran counterparts.
These veterans were almost nonchalant about prison’s military-like operations: strict schedules, dictated behavioral decorum, and adherence to a chain of command. Their stories of why they were serving postservice time in prison had common themes centered on their lingering and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Their invisible wounds are evidence of the need for prison reform geared toward our veterans in the form of appropriate mental health care and overall rehabilitation to the civilian world.
From PTSD to Prison
According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 20 percent of the vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either major depression or PTSD, and 19.5 percent of vets in these two categories have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). These three service-related disorders alone have an enormous impact on the demand for veteran mental health treatment. Physical disabilities secondary to war injuries, such as limb losses and related disabilities, are fueling factors for mental health dysfunction.
The data is stunning. The Daily Beast reports the following:
- A certain number of veterans suffering from mental-health issues will, invariably, end up in jail or prison.
- After Vietnam, the number of inmates with prior military service rose steadily until reaching a peak in 1985, when more than one in five was a veteran.
- By 1988, more than half of all Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD reported that they had been arrested; more than one third reported they had been arrested multiple times.
- Today veterans advocates fear that, unless they receive proper support, a similar epidemic may befall soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A major problem is that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed with returning soldiers. According to the Daily Beast article, “the VA’s regional office in Los Angeles . . . takes an average of 568 days to process veterans’ disability claims.” That’s eighteen months’ worth of waiting without appropriate health care intervention.
There’s a metaphorical hand grenade, with no safety clip to prevent the pin from being pulled, in our midst—a sort of ticking mental health bomb.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “PTSD has affected an enormous number of veterans returning from combat zones. Over 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. At least 175,000 veterans of Operation Desert Storm were affected by ‘Gulf War Illness,’ which has been linked to brain cancer and other mental deficits. Over 300,000 veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have PTSD. In one study, only about half had received treatment in the prior year.”
This sounds to me like a wake-up call for special prison reform in the form of mental health treatment for veterans.
Check out the following sites recommended by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for more information:
- National Center for PTSD—Veterans and their Families: This website contains in-depth information on PTSD and traumatic stress. You can find answers to Frequently Asked Questions About PTSD; Fact Sheets on Common Reactions; information about the effects of trauma on Family and Friends; and much more.
- VA PTSD Program Locator: The program locator will help you find local VA PTSD programs.
- MyhealtheVet—Separation from Active Duty Center: This center was developed to support Veterans from OEF/OIF [Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom] by providing information and services to promote optimal health.
- The War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC): The WRIISC, pronounced “risk,” offers services to combat Veterans, families, and healthcare providers on deployment-related health concerns through clinical evaluation, research, education and risk communication.
- net: Visit this site to view stories from Veterans of all service eras who have successfully dealt with transitioning from service and overcome mental health challenges. MakeTheConnection.net is a one-stop resource where Veterans and their families and friends can privately explore information on mental health issues, hear fellow Veterans and their families share their stories of resilience, and easily find and access the support and resources they need.
- Watch video testimonials from Veterans who have found effective ways to deal with transitioning from service and other issues affecting their lives, and to learn more about treatment and recovery.
The views and comments of my readers are always welcome.
Image courtesy of 123rf.