01/30/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Nothing Normal About War, Including How We Talk About It

I knew there'd be repercussions when I saw Prince Harry's "quote" in USA Today. What he said in the video clip was, "Take a life to save a life." What headlines picked up was that he had killed Taliban fighters. Even a full front page: "I Have Killed."

 Sure enough, a day later Harry was back in England being interviewed in case he had come off as being cavalier.  He clarified his statement with, "We are supporting Afghan people, supporting the Afghan army." In a story that ran on NBC's Today show January 24, Harry says, "We're asked to do things that you'd expect to do wearing this uniform... There's nothing normal about what we've been doing these 4 1/2 months. There's nothing normal about what's going on out there."

Finally. It took a celebrity to get this out in the open.  There's nothing normal about what's going on out there.  What sticks in my mind is the public confession of a truth most of us would like to dodge: this man has been trained to kill and he has killed. We all like heroes. But not even a prince who's also a celebrity can get away with calling our attention to a larger truth: the mission for a trained soldier is to find and kill the enemy. Period.

A surprising thing we learned in World War II is that fewer than 30 percent responded and returned fire. Freezing in first-time combat is a very human response. So we trained soldiers differently for Vietnam; we trained them to react without thinking. With the advances in weaponry, the result was whole villages sprayed with fire, indiscriminate bullets that couldn't differentiate between civilians and the enemy. What we learned from that is documented in the sad history of what those veterans faced when they returned to us.  We'd trained them to be killers, and then didn't de-brief them. Nothing normal about what was going on out there. Instead, we just dumped them back into civilian life and expected them to resume their previous lives as productive members of society. You can't train a human being to kill other human beings and then ask that person to switch off that training and conditioning at will.

The waves of veterans, both men and women, returning to us now from our two longest-running wars were trained to use technological weapons that made them the most effective at their job of any force in the history of the world. But perhaps it created even more distance between who they were before they went to war, and who they are on their return.

Am I the only one thinking about this?  Consider the number of veterans who file for mental health benefits as a result of their combat experiences. According to Veterans for Common Sense, the "VA has treated more than 834,000 new, first-time Iraq and Afghanistan War Veteran patients.  Among those are 445,000 diagnosed with mental health conditions by VA professionals."  That's so close to half it's not worth arguing, and it doesn't take into consideration the vets who filed and are waiting, or worse, who found themselves in criminal courts for behaviors arising from PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury. Nor does it take into account the vets out there who know something is wrong but don't know where to turn. Does the word epidemic come to mind?

These veterans, left untreated or ignored, will have a huge impact on American life for years to come.  Think of the families, loved ones and children who will be caught in the ripples as this fans out through our society.  We have the examples of Vietnam veterans, many of whom are still homeless, many more suffering quietly as their families suffer with them.

It seems like the need for more and better mental health programs has been made pretty clear.  So who's stepping up to the plate?  The VA is hamstrung. Local CBO's and the NVF have their hands full. Our toll-free crisis hotline, staffed by decorated vets who've served multiple tours, extends to online chat and we know we're not reaching every vet in need.  A problem of this size needs a large solution.  A great beginning would be to start naming things as they are.  This is not a pretty problem.  It needs a brave response from each of us.