Memorial Day in the United States is more than remembrance; it is also a catalyst for a discussion that needs to occur throughout the year.
As a day, it is about respect and remembrance honoring those who’ve died in wars or military actions as well as remembering those dead who were also veterans. However, it also raises the ongoing question about respect and support for veterans who are living. Particularly those sent into conflicts or combat in places around the world, returning wounded or with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where we’ve intervened to protect people, principles or governments without sufficient agreement or understanding at home about whether we should be fighting those battles.
So this begs the question of what additional support is needed? Statistics that 22 veterans commit suicide each day may not give us yet the full context for these deaths, but it makes it harder to ignore a longstanding problem that haunts many veterans.
Daniel Egbert and Doc King, co-founders of Medicinal Missions, are combat-wounded veterans who created Project 22, which started as a 6,500 mile cross-country awareness campaign about veteran suicide; they interviewed researchers, health care providers and veterans. The results of their trip is a just-released, 102-minute documentary, called Project 22, of the stories of loss, survival and hope that Egbert and King heard.
I learned about the film from a student taking an ethics course I taught. Dealing with PTSD after his return from combat duty and taking a full course-load, as well as navigating a part-time job and family responsibilities, he acknowledged that he thought about suicide every day. Support from his family and others kept him going, he said, but the question haunting him is why he survived when so many in his unit were killed. Home a year, he indicated that he hadn’t, as of last month, been able to get an appointment at a Veterans Administration hospital. Revelations about long waits to receive care in the VA Health System received much attention in the last few years, but recent reports indicate not enough has changed.
While a recent poll indicated returning veterans feel much more is needed to help them find jobs and transition to civilian life, companies (including Cisco, General Electric and Starbucks) universities, states and the federal government (including the VA) have stepped up with room for so many more to do so. Pubic recognition is mixed. Goodwill gestures to pay tribute to veterans at sporting events, for example, are often genuine but lose value when hijacked to be more about promoting others’ brands than the veterans themselves.
The issues of returning home after military service are more complex when the service is not viewed the same way that fighting was in the World Wars. Ways of being grounded by a sense of belonging, feeling valued and sacrifice that mattered need to have a huge internal quotient to compensate for gaps in external validation.
We are a society of huge achievements. That helps guide us in looking at ways to address unmet needs.
A documentary like Project 22 opens wider avenues of conversation and potential collaboration around ways of better understanding and meeting needs.
Gael O’Brien, May 25, 2015