How We Can Really Support Our Troops

Question: Do we\r\nunderstand soldiers’ traumas better than we used to?

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Nancy Sherman:\r\nWell we’re doing better in that we’re sending mental health clinicians \r\nout to\r\nthe field.  And at Uniform Services\r\nUniversity, which is on the campus of Bethesda Naval Hospital, I \r\nsometimes\r\nteach some of these folks who are going out to the field. \r\n So, they’re deploying with the troops\r\nand they’re going to be available, and they make themselves known in \r\nadvance,\r\nand some of them do like warrior resilience training.  I’m\r\n here, this is what a healthy soldier can expect to see,\r\nhelping commanders know that they’re there, so if some of their troops \r\nare\r\ninvolved in incidents or they lose buddies or they kill civilians, they \r\nknow\r\nwhere to go afterward and have touched base beforehand.  So,\r\n there’s much more of that.  We have more \r\nchaplains going out and\r\nbeing trained in these areas.  We\r\nalso now are using medical corpsmen to help fill these roles, so they’re\r\n not\r\njust dealing with first aid and physical wounds, but rather \r\npsychological\r\nwounds.  So, we’re doing a lot\r\nbetter.  It’s still stigmatizing to\r\ncome home and seek help and self-medication is one of the first things \r\nthat\r\nlots of folks do, sadly, which is alcohol or drugs. 

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And what we’re not doing enough of, I think, is \r\nreally\r\ngetting support to the families. \r\nThe families served too, in a way, as I said, they go to war in a\r\n sense\r\nwith their soldiers because they’re in such close communication.  They can email their war theater and\r\nhome theater are not so separated, and when they come home, they’re \r\noften\r\nlimited in resources.  How do you\r\ndeal with a soldier, male or female, who comes home and just retreats \r\ninside,\r\nor can’t begin to talk, and also unemployment rates are much higher for\r\nreturning veterans than they are for those—for civilians. 

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So, we’re getting better, but we still have this \r\nenormous\r\nyawning military/civilian divide. \r\nAnd the families in a sense are civilian families, of course, but\r\nthey’re military families because their loved ones have served and they \r\nfeel\r\nsociety often isn’t supporting them enough.

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Question: What new\r\nsolutions or interventions would you propose?

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Nancy Sherman: Certainly more money\r\n into the VA, stronger benefits, more robust\r\nprograms for seeking jobs, making sure that the military hospitals are \r\nnot\r\nthemselves shaming places.  Walter\r\nReed had a very big scandal about three years ago in mismanagement and \r\nit was a\r\nbullying place where soldiers would come home and they were still kept \r\nin\r\nholding units where they would be ready as if to deploy, but most of \r\nthem knew\r\nthey weren’t because they had such severe injuries, yet they still had \r\nto go\r\noutside for 6:30 a.m. formation, and stand in formation and whatnot.  Though many had been on very heavy\r\nmedications at night, or might not fall asleep or drift into sleep until\r\n 4:30\r\nin the morning, and if they were on leave for awhile, they didn’t get \r\nback in\r\ntime, they were really bullied. \r\nSo, making sure that our environments are healthier.  We’ve done a lot to clean those up with\r\nsomething called Warrior Transition Brigades.  Soldiers\r\n themselves helping other soldiers move through this\r\npassage. 

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But I would say, one thing we can do, and I’m \r\ninvolved in\r\nthis to some degree.  If you’re on\r\na teaching campus, talk to those veterans that have come home and try to\r\n break\r\ndown the barriers, and make them understand that they don’t have to feel\r\n it’s\r\nonly those that have been to war and come home that can really be talked\r\n to,\r\nthat we really want to understand and listen.  And\r\n similarly those that are about to go to war who are part\r\nof ROTC programs.  Make sure they\r\nare not feeling marginalized in class, or afraid to say that I’m going \r\nto be\r\nserving in a year’s time, or whatnot, and really trying on a \r\nperson-to-person\r\nbasis to break down some of the barriers in our local communities.  I think that’s really critical.  In\r\n addition to large scale policies of\r\nmore resources in the VA, having the VA talk to the military hospitals \r\nmore\r\nsmoothly.  We’re working that out\r\nright now with unified computer systems. 

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And also understanding that multiple deployments \r\nhave an\r\nattrition; a psychological attrition on the mental health of soldiers.  Resilience is sort of supposed to be,\r\nyou bounce a ball and it for a while continues to hold its bounce, but \r\nthen\r\nballs after awhile they keep bouncing and bouncing and bouncing and the \r\nbounce\r\ngets lower and lower and lower. \r\nAnd a little bit like that with troops.  You\r\n send them three and four and five times to war and their\r\nresilience just doesn’t hold up the same way as in the first round.  Stresses on families as a result, high\r\ndivorce rates.

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Question: Are some of\r\nthese stresses unavoidable in an all-volunteer army?

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Nancy Sherman: It’s\r\n an Army that wasn’t designed to fight two wars at the\r\nsame time for 10 years.  If you\r\nthink about it, I teach 18- to 22-year-olds, half of their lives have \r\nbeen exposed\r\nin a very indirect way, but nonetheless, that’s the background factor to\r\nwar.  That’s a long time, longer\r\nthan exposure during World War II.  So,\r\nyes, big debate, certainly about draft versus volunteer. \r\n I don’t think we will go back to a\r\ndraft easily.  There’s not enough\r\nsupport for that in Congress.  But\r\nwe certainly could have more service of various sorts, national service \r\nand\r\nmaking military service one of those options so that those that go into\r\nmilitary service aren't the only ones who are doing compulsory national \r\nservice.

We’re taking better psychological care of soldiers than we used to. But with deployments getting longer and longer, far more needs to be done.

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