Yesterday the head of our country's military -- Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm, Mike Mullen -- spoke about the chasm that exists between civilians and our service members. I was glad to see the military acknowledging and addressing the separateness created by our all volunteer army, because I think it has profound potential consequences for our engagement with the men and women who serve and their families.
How many of us know someone fighting in Afghanistan or recently returned from there or Iraq? I began wondering this after realizing that because combat PTSD has been getting a great deal of media attention in the last couple of years, most people believe that our troops and veterans suffering from PTSD get the help they need from the military and the VA. Most people have no idea what our troops and their families experience before, during, and after deployment. This has never before been true.
In World War II, sixteen million Americans -- 11 percent of the country -- were drafted or enlisted into the military. Today our troops are one percent of our population. As an October 19th op-ed by R. Tyson Smith in The Philadelphia Inquirer said, "American civilians continue to love what veterans represent -- duty, sacrifice, strength, leadership -- but we have less and less true understanding of the veteran experience. Although the United States is in the 10th year of a war, veterans have become increasingly marginalized, accounting for a dwindling share of middle-class and public life."
For the first time since WWII, there is no veteran among our Supreme Court judges. Only four of our U.S. senators are veterans, compared with 69 in 1970. The proportion in the House during this same time period has dropped from 75 percent to 22 percent today. We can count on one hand the number of members of Congress whose children serve in combat. No wonder that veterans feel like aliens and often do not come forward to find help. And no wonder most Americans have no idea of the isolation veterans with PTSD feel, the anger of trying to get immediate help from a huge bureaucracy that seems to exist only to create obstacles rather than help. While it might be impossible for most of us to imagine being in combat, (as many veterans say, even the best movie does not involve smell), we have much more capacity to imagine trauma. We have seen car accidents or been in one, we have received sudden news of a loved one's death; we have been attacked by a dog. While these do not begin to compare to the trauma of combat, the traumas of civilian life give us a clue, open a window into what on a much more powerful, profound level, veterans suffer.
We owe our troops and veterans that use of our imagination. We owe them taking the time to read and listen to their stories. The web offers many excellent sources. Begin with this one, a collection of blogs: www.ptsdasoldiersperspective.com/p/experience-combat-ptsd.html
Follow Leila Levinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vets_children