Lois M. Collins: We honor U.S. soldiers but don't help them heal

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

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My friend Beth says we give great lip service to loving our returned soldiers, but we don't really do much to help them reclaim their lives. She's been paying attention in the year since two of her nephews came home from serving in Iraq. One's proving better at slipping back into his old life than the other, but neither one is acing it, she says.

If we really loved soldiers, she insists, we'd all go down to a homeless shelter in our area and help one of the men there.

Statistically, there's a pretty good chance that he'd turn out to be an American veteran, back from one of our wars. It's possible some of the women in the shelter are returned veterans, as well, she says, but the numbers are certainly smaller.

Her bold, nearly unbelievable statement caught my attention. And she's right. While we throw a welcome-home party rather than the hostility that greeted so many soldiers home from Vietnam, many today are coming home to a different kind of hostile environment.

A lot of them are finding it hard to get jobs in this still-difficult economy. Counseling options for those who are struggling are limited, if one is even willing to look for it. And it's not particularly easy to move from a wartime environment back into the so-called normalcy of home, either. Everybody in the family has to adjust.

When Warren Farrell, a best-selling author of 15 books, including "Why Men Are the Way They Are," got 34 experts together for the study on the challenges of men and boys in advance of asking the White House to create a council specifically to help them, veterans got their own section detailing serious issues.

It notes that 60 percent of Vietnam veterans "were psychiatric casualties. In 1978, over 400,000 Vietnam veterans were in prison, on parole, on probation, or awaiting trial." The problem, it says, is that societies have long depended on men to be "disposable for the greater good" — to fight war and to take on the dangerous and extremely physical jobs deemed essential for a nation's progress.

Oliver Wendell Holmes put it this way: "Every society rests on the deaths of men."

Society seems inadequately prepared for the challenges of some returning soldiers. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that today 154,000 veterans are homeless on a given night. But it's not as simple as offering one a roof and a helping hand. There can be extreme mental health issues. And that's another area where we're not prepared. The number of mental health workers has dropped, nearly halved between 2004 and 2007, according to the proposal.

CBS' chief investigative reporter, Armen Keteyian, had heard stories of high numbers of suicide among soldiers returning from Iraq, but little tracking was being done in 2007 when he started compiling data. VA had very limited numbers. He filed a request with the Department of Defense for suicide numbers and found 188 in one year just among active-duty soldiers. But most suicides aren't active duty.

He asked the states and 45 of them provided data on suicides, differentiated between those who served and those who didn't. The numbers were astonishing: 6,256 former soldier suicides in 2005 alone, which breaks down to 120 a week — more than were dying in the conflict itself. It was highest among those ages 20 to 24.

"A culture that believes men are disposable will honor their disposability with monuments, but not care for them once they've served their purpose," the report notes. Soldiers who survive physically must be cared for emotionally or it becomes a different type of battle.

We honor them with monuments. Could we build them something that heals?

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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