Mentors and the Broken Veteran Conundrum
By Lana Duffy
Come on, people. I just kvetched about this. Can we please, for a minute, examine that not all veterans are angry, and not all veteran suicides are related to PTSD? And that pushing the damaged veteran motif only makes vets less approachable, making this problem of depression a tragic, self-fulfilling prophecy? Can we look for commonalities and become proactive instead of reactive?
Recently, a friend was on public transit with a water bottle that identified her vet status when a stranger said to her “You aren’t going to snap on me, are you?” Worst pickup line ever, buddy…
Also recently, I received two screening invitations: one for a movie about veteran depression and one for a new show (loosely) related to women in combat. The latter was accompanied by a one-pager of an angry, blood and dirt smeared female face. I expect to hate it on multiple levels. I was a woman in combat, one with PTSD and TBI, but I know I will not identify with this show, not if this is what I’m going to get. I tire of the one-sided portrayal of my fellow sisters and brothers-in-arms. It scares, not supports.
Ranger Up even has a shirt poking fun at this “all veterans are a ticking time bomb” concept, sometimes causing a kerfuffle among the super-sensitives. But it’s true: we aren’t all going to lose it, so maybe if we start addressing common problems instead of scaring people we might have more luck integrating.
Before you get defensive about everyone needing help, by the way, let’s look quickly at the PTSD issue. PTSD is defined as those exposed to traumatic experiences and having trouble processing those experiences. Taking the population of OEF/OIF (the Vietnam generation could be a whole series of articles and studies to itself), there are many who were exposed to such experiences, but many were not. A shocking number never deployed. Check out this data from Time Magazine. While a few years old, mind that this was also before two draw-downs which saw even fewer deployments.
Then we look at those who did deploy, but didn’t really see “combat.” I loved my support elements, I could not have functioned fully without them, but in all likelihood most aren’t suffering from PTSD, they might have depression unrelated to a traumatic experience.
But that isn’t the focus of the media. As I related in my last article, that focus is on the negatives, on PTSD and how we all must have it. But obviously that’s not it, so we need to change the approach.
We need to be treated as humans, we need to laugh at ourselves more, and we need to know about our options so we can get help if and when we need it.
Because holy shit there are so many options.
But the really sad part: of the veterans I know, proportionally few know about any options, even those that might help prevent the “snap”. Beyond psychological issues, many don’t know how to use the GI Bill. They don’t know housing options. They don’t know about the 37 veterans groups hosting a function within several miles of their home this month. All they know is that there’s a “problem” with veteran anger and depression, because that’s all they hear.
And so what do they do? They go it alone. And that, my friends, is when they get depressed. Those with PTSD, it gets worse. Those without will get just as depressed when they end up homeless or jobless or miss their social circle so desperately. And they feel alone because they don’t realize how many of us went through or are going through the exact same thing and their community fears them because of the negative portrayals. It’s a bigger problem, one not made better by “awareness” but one that is only made better by positive attitudes and support of the whole military population, not just the select few with medical diagnoses. Because there are many more that need help than those few.
The numbers show non-combat vets still do get depressed, so then the question is why. If PTSD isn’t the common link, what is triggering this depression?
Well, what does every veteran have in common?
By definition of being a veteran: transition. We all have to get out, figure out our lives, catch up with our peers, acclimate to civilian culture, find social circles, and give up guns and glory to make a difference without the uniform. It’s hard, and it’s everyone.
So what is the solution? We need one that is as broad as the problem, and strong enough to overcome this perception of damage.
Military transition programs help you write a resume, but they don’t know how to help you find a place to live in a new city that has a weird broker system costing you 10 grand in your first month (thanks, NYC). We had sponsors in the military when we made a move to help ease the stress. Where’s our sponsor for civilian life?
There’s an organization expanding across the country right now that combines the transition process with sponsorship. It’s called the Battle Buds Initiative and it goes, as co-founders and veterans Tim O’Connor, Joe Geraci, and Peter Gaudet say, “on the offense” for veterans. They use sportsball terms a lot (I like futbol… mock me all you like), but they’re right: we need something that completes the team, preventing depression across the broadest population. It counters the media dynamic of “damaged” to show potential preventability, and that impact can be huge on multiple levels.
Because depression and PTSD won’t stop only from treatment; though critical, that solution is partial. We need to be working alongside those options to be proactive and change the whole dialogue. It’s knowing what treatment options exist. It’s knowing what job options exist. It’s knowing how to navigate the GI Bill and scholarships. It’s making sure your family has health care. It’s making sense of the million things that slammed in your face the day you come off terminal leave.
Battle Buds pairs transitioning veterans with a “sponsor,” a mentor who is acclimated to the area who helps the vets navigate five domains of transition: medical, education, employment, social, and housing. If the vet has a problem in any of those areas, the mentor helps them figure out solutions before it leads to bigger issues with psychological ramifications. It’s for all transitioning veterans, regardless of combat status, discharge, or any existing issues. Mentors, both veteran and civilians, are trained to help guide the veteran to a point where they can adjust without feeling alone, but still feel empowered. It attacks all of the problems of transition through a simple concept we already understand. How was this not done already? I have no idea, but I’m glad someone is doing it now.
We, as a population of veterans and veteran supporters, need more of these mentors. We need people who have been there to help vets coming to their communities adjust. We need those sponsors, both military and civilian, to provide just enough support to allow people to adjust. We need offensive lineman (or, in my world, a great forward) in addition to those groups that act as defense. We didn’t have the full team before, and now we are finally getting it. Only then can we change our attitudes, relate to each other and the world at large, and shift this self-fulfilling prophecy to a dialogue that is more positive in both the media and in reality.
To find out more about becoming a mentor in NYC, DC, Philly, LA, or Dallas, or about starting a Battle Buds chapter in your area, please visit www.battlebuds.org.