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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 18, 2008

We must help mend the soldiers who have broken in our service

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Soldiers can be casualties of war — not just those in flag-draped coffins. We can all recognize those who are physically wounded. We, as a nation, need to support the veterans who have sacrificed their well being to serve their country, to serve us. This includes veterans who are mentally and emotionally wounded as well.

In some ways, those of us safe at home are doing better now than we did during the Vietnam War. We’re supporting the soldiers even if we oppose the current war in Iraq. Wounded veterans need more than moral support, though; they need medical and monetary support, too.

We’re breaking a story this week on a program that will soon bring wounded veterans in our midst. The Father Peter Young Center, housed in the former seminary building perched on the hill just above Altamont, has been awarded a state grant that will rehabilitate recent veterans as detailed by reporter Philippa Stasiuk. The program will be the first to specifically concentrate on the needs of those who served in the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We welcome such a program and hope others will, too. Veterans, both men and women, will be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and for drug and alcohol addiction as well as for the effects of concussion, traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs, and shrapnel-related injuries. They’ll get the round-the-clock care that they need, tended to by nurses, psychologists, and social workers.

“They need to start over again. They need to get themselves independent,” said Kal-Joe Szabo, who will be running the program. He ought to know. A Vietnam veteran, Szabo was himself once addicted to heroin.

“There was a lot of doubt about surviving the war,” he said, when asked to explain his drug use. When on patrol, he said, he and his buddies wouldn’t use drugs because others’ lives depended on them. Off-duty time was different. “If you were on R and R,” Szabo said, “not patrol for 24 hours, I did what was available. In my case, there was powerful heroin from the Golden Triangle,” a region of Southeast Asia.

Thousands of veterans from our recent wars have been diagnosed with drug dependencies, which are often linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Estimates of the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans returning from Iraq range from 12 to 20 percent, according to a 2007 abstract from the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting. Evaluation immediately on return from deployment suggested that 5 percent of active duty and 6 percent of reserve personnel had significant mental health problems, the abstract said. When re-assessed three to six months later, 27 percent of active duty and 42 percent of reserve personnel received that evaluation.

The discrepancy is explained in two ways: Soldiers want to get home and don’t want to delay their return with treatment, and mental health problems often have a delayed onset.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says in a report on the treatment of the returning Iraq War veteran, “Patients themselves may have a number of incentives to minimize their distress: to hasten discharge, to accelerate a return to the family, to avoid compromising their military career or retirement.” The report also says, “Some veterans will perceive their need for continuing care as a sign of personal failure.”

They shouldn’t. The true failure comes in not seeking help when needed. Lives headed for ruin can be turned around and put back on track with proper treatment.

Those with post-traumatic stress disorder suffer from intrusive memories, nightmares, and flashbacks; they feel isolated and emotionally numbed; and they have trouble sleeping and concentrating, and are easily startled and angered. They frequently are unemployed, abuse drugs and alcohol, and have violent or abusive relationships.

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD and alcohol problems often occur together. For example, 60 to 80 percent of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use disorders, the center says.

“The co-morbidity of PTSD with alcohol and drug problems in veterans is well established,” according to the report from Veterans Affairs.

Father Peter Young has a history of listening to those in need and caring for people rejected by society. When Young began working in Albany’s South End in the 1950s, alcoholism was a crime. Martha Holesapple was arrested for public drunkenness 238 times, said Young; that’s what spurred him to action.

“We’re housing over 3,000 people a night from Buffalo to Brooklyn in every city in the state,” he told us earlier of his centers, like the one in Altamont which provides treatment for people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“The biggest thing I did was de-stigmatize,” he said. “I de-stigmatized addiction.” That’s what enabled people to get help, Young said.

At first, he said, politicians saw his priest’s collar and dismissed him as a do-gooder, but, when he presented the costs of incarcerating drunks, he got some attention.

“I proved it was cost-effective,” he said. “That’s how I got credibility.”

Veterans came to him recently, Father Young said, and told him of their needs. There was a too-long waiting list at the Albany site, he said.

Quick intervention yields the best results. Treatment for PTSD, like treatment for alcoholism, is cost-effective because healthy and employed veterans don’t need welfare. And, mental illnesses need to be de-stigmatized, too. Veterans shouldn’t have to worry that getting help will jeopardize their careers.

This new program could help break a cycle that continues through generations. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, addicted to drugs or alcohol, inflict pain in turn on their families. Society as a whole suffers.

The report from Veterans Affairs includes a section on what has been learned from Vietnam veterans with chronic PTSD. “The chance to work with combat veterans soon after their war experiences represents a real opportunity to prevent the development of a disastrous life course,” it says.

The report also says that mental health providers may reduce long-term family problems. The challenge with treating PTSD, it says, “is to help the veteran avoid withdrawal from others by supporting re-entry into existing relationships with friends, work, colleagues, and relatives, or where appropriate, assisting in development of new social relationships.”

The Altamont program is looking to hire veterans as staff members, which we also applaud.

“In treatment of chronic PTSD,” the Veterans Affairs report says, “veterans often report that perhaps their most valued experience was the opportunity to connect in friendship and support with other vets.”

This makes sense. Veterans, better than the rest of us, understand what it is like to be in combat. Veteran staff members can be ideal role models.

Szabo said the most important goal in working with mentally injured veterans is “to get past their state of isolation and psychological pain, to give the hope.”

In 2003, when Colin Powell was secretary of state, he famously quoted the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. He was, of course, talking about the United States’ accountability for invading Iraq. But we believe it applies as well to the welfare of individual soldiers. They were broken fighting for us. We own them and their problems.

We support this program to heal our veterans, and we’re proud Altamont’s center is in the forefront. We should, each of us, welcome the veterans in our midst. They deserve not just our gratitude but our support. They’ve earned it.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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