On a day marked to honor our veterans and to commemorate the sacrifices made by these great men and women, we need to take a moment to give voice to those who still live in the shadows of war. These are the soldiers who continue to suffer with the deeply embedded trauma of battle, yet who won't disclose their feelings due to shame, or simply out of fear that no one will understand, preferring instead the cover of silence and anonymity.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day at least 22 veterans take their own lives. The number of active-duty servicemen from the Afghanistan conflict who have committed suicide long ago surpassed those who died in battle. Too many of them are still at risk.
When I started researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for my recent novel Shadowlands, I interviewed numerous soldiers who had returned from combat in Afghanistan. At first they were reluctant to speak to me, saying that a civilian who had not seen battle couldn't possibly understand what they had been through. They might talk to their fellow soldiers about their lives during war, but mostly what they had experienced was kept to themselves. Finally, after gaining their trust, they opened up to me. Soldiers toughened by battle cried as they told me haunting and horrific stories; for many it was the first time they had talked to a civilian about their experiences. And, to a person, each soldier I interviewed said that anyone who had seen battle had come back with PTSD; it was only a matter of degree.
This week I reached out to some of the soldiers I had interviewed for my novel, asking them what had stuck with them most from Afghanistan, and what, on Veterans Day, they would like others to remember. One replied:
"The biggest thing I took home from Afghanistan is the fact that it's probably the only time in my life that I truly lived. I sometimes think about the day I turned 32, because I had a paranoia that I wouldn't see that birthday. I miss the guys a lot, I know I'll never have friends like that again. When I meet with the old boys that served with me over there I realize we are all still stuck there in some way. Some more than others. I'm not sure what I want people to understand about Afghanistan, it's too much to ask when us soldiers really don't understand it much. I guess just to respect the dead and honor them as heroes."
There are literally hundreds of programs and groups to help returning veterans integrate into life back home. Still, we need to do more. If you know a veteran who may have trouble coping, reach out. Signs to watch out for include withdrawal, increased anxiety, hyper arousal to stimulus, and substance abuse. Encourage them to seek counseling and treatment, and help steer them toward one of the many groups that can help them.
And remember to thank them, not just on Veterans Day, for their service and sacrifice for all of us.
Mark Prior is an author and media executive living in Los Angeles. Proceeds of his latest novel Shadowlands are donated to the benefit of veteran's and Alzheimer's causes.