Thanks in no small part to the lobbying efforts of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act is heading to the President’s desk. This bill is designed to, among other things, increase accessibility of mental health treatment for veterans. This bill only passed because the pressure applied by various veterans groups kept it on politicians’ “to do” lists. That’s no small feat when you remember they also had to squeeze in another vote to repeal ObamaCare (56th and counting).
But they did vote on it, and pass it, and now the Clay Hunt SAV Act is about to become law. That’s great news. But let’s be honest about what the bill does and how much it stands to help reduce suicide among veterans.
Programs created by well-meaning politicians to care for veterans have a tough time living up to their potential. This is because before most programs can be effective, they require veterans to do something that most abhor: ask for help. Instead of being used as preventative medicine to alleviate re-adjustment issues when they are relatively small, these programs are usually considered options of last resort by the veterans they are designed to help. Because we generally wait until our life is a train wreck before giving ourselves permission to ask for help, the existing support structure is bombarded by veterans who show up with complex layers of counter-productive coping mechanisms and years of failed life-choices that actively inhibit their ability to be helped. Until veterans change their own personal attitudes toward facing and overcoming the challenges of coming home, the programs our government creates to help us will fall short of their full potential.
The challenges of coming home from war are not new. A quick read through James Wright’s Those Who Have Borne The Battle highlights the challenges American veterans have always faced when transitioning back to “normal” life after war. But these challenges are not limited to just our veterans, either. They have been part of the warrior experience throughout history and across cultures. Some societies had meaningful rites and rituals designed to usher returning warrior’s through these challenges. Ours does not.
Instead, we have created a system where all the tools a warrior could use to overcome the challenges of coming home are stacked up on the other side of a great divide. To cross it, the warrior must shed a large part of what he/she has been told is most important about being a warrior–namely that strength is rooted in ignoring pain at all costs, and that to ask for help is a sign of weakness. This lie has claimed the lives of too many returning veterans–and creating another useful tool to toss on top of the pile is not going to take away its teeth.
So what can?
We can. Those of us who have chosen to serve in the military can do the most to change this deadly misconception. The more we outsource our concepts of what it means to be a warrior to those with political agendas, or those seeking to entertain rather than enlighten, the more likely the next generation of veterans will be burdened with same shallow concepts of what it means to be a warrior that we are. They’ll have a great pile of benefits and programs designed to help them, but they’ll be prevented from accessing them by the same misconceptions of weakness.
But veterans can help keep that from happening. To do so, though, will require us to face our demons head on. We cannot hunker down on the other side of the divide, content to point across and say “help is over there if you want it,” as if the distant stack of programs are only helpful for others and not ourselves. We must be active participants in overcoming our own challenges, and in doing so show others how to do the same. We must give ourselves clearance to be introspective, to unpack the emotions and memories of our experiences and understand them. We compartmentalized them in the heat of the moment but now, years later, this same compartmentalization is preventing us from moving forward in life. If we need to access some of the pile of programs available in order to help us do it, then we have to sack-up and cross that divide.
My hat is off to the IAVA and Paul Rieckhoff for their relentless lobbying of our politicians. They have made, and continue to make, meaningful improvements in how America treats her veterans. But we, as individual veterans, have a role to play as well. And it’s not one we can outsource to anyone else. Unpacking the transformative experiences of our service, and then figuring out a way to share them with others, is the best way that we, as individual veterans, can improve the way future American veterans are re-integrated into society.
How to accomplish this, and why it is our responsibility as veterans to do it, are too lengthy to adequately address in a blog post. Good thing I wrote a book about it. The manuscript is undergoing final editing and I hope to have it available in the coming months. Updates for Continuing Actions: Completing The Warrior’s Journey will be made available through social media and this website. Please subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter @dansheehan_dan to make sure you don’t miss any information about the upcoming release.