Support the Troops: Treatment Instead of Jail for Returning Vets

11/09/2006 01:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Saturday, our Republicans and Democrats in office will again be urging us to "support the troops" in commemoration of Veterans' Day. Doubtless, they will talk about our brave men and woman risking their lives to defend America and our way of life.

Upon closer inspection, however, I find the sincerity of most elected officials' "support" for the troops approximating the hypocrisy of Mark Foley and Ted Haggard as the guardians of "family values."

A November 2 front-page story in USA Today reported that veterans coming off active duty in Iraq who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are being punished by the military for misconduct, and dishonorably discharged without receiving medical benefits needed to treat this severe disorder.

Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who supervises the legal defense of Marines, told USA Today that scores of Marines are being dismissed without receiving the much-needed benefits. "When classic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder arise--including alcoholism and drug abuse--the veterans are punished for their behavior... The Marine Corps has created these mental heath issues" in combat veterans, Vokey told USA Today. "And then we just kind of kick them out into the streets."

When one imagines what it is like to fight in Iraq, it is not hard to think that many returning vets will self-medicate to cope with the trauma of war. What is it like to be shot at and know that each day could be your last? How does one deal with the pain of seeing friends die in your arms? What does killing other human beings do to one's emotional stability?

Seeing Vietnam veterans with mental problems who self-medicate with drugs, I cannot help but think that veterans from the Iraq War--many of whom are going through similar horrors--will end up having similar problems with drug abuse.

My personal struggle is with cigarettes. Many of us may be struggling with dependencies on alcohol or marijuana while coping with the pressures of hectic and demanding lives. And our problems are nothing compared with those of people coming back from Iraq missing a limb.

According to the military publication Stars and Stripes, my hunches are correct. A July 25, 2005 story reported that alcohol and other drug use problems are common throughout the forces in Iraq. "Some of the young soldiers just can't handle the stress and turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate," said military defense lawyer Capt. Chris Krafchek.

An Army report released in March 2006 stated that one out of three returning veterans seek mental heath services upon returning. What is going to happen to all the people suffering from depression, who may also be having suicidal thoughts? Many will end up using drugs to cope, as many of us civilians do. Now on top of everything else, many of our vets are going to have to worry about getting caught with drugs, and being arrested and prosecuted.

U.S. prisons are overflowing with nonviolent drug offenders, many serving mandatory sentences of 15-years-to-life for small amounts of drugs. Now we can add a new category of "collateral damage" in this war: service members, incarcerated and separated from their families because of drug addiction resulting from combat in Iraq.

It is easy for people to buy a bumper sticker or give speeches demanding that we "Support our Troops" but, if we are going to walk the talk, we had better be ready to offer compassion and treatment--not just a jail cell--when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters heal from the trauma of war.

No matter who controls the House and Senate, whether you are Republican or Democrat, pro-war or anti-war, we all need to offer assistance to those suffering from this war. Let's hope that we support our troops now better than we supported the veterans who fought in Vietnam.