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Rockets' Red Glare

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The Department of Veterans’ Affairs created a fair bit of controversy recently when it issued a new rule on who qualifies to get disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is what old-timers used to call shell-shock, and while it has plagued soldiers since antiquity, modern psychology didn’t address the issue until legions of WWI vets had been turned into walking zombies after enduring one too many artillery barrages, charges into machine-gun fire, gas attacks…take your pick.

It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the VA started to seriously look at the mental health of active and returning soldiers, many of whom were unwilling conscripts whose nearly constant exposure to enemy action and feelings of disenfranchisement on the battlefield and at home created ideal conditions for PTSD. According to some critics, however, the PTSD diagnosis was less about medicine and more about an anti-war effort on the part of certain mental health professionals to drum up anti-war sympathies among the public. Damn hippies. They’re always trying to spoil a good war.

The VA’s new rule states that to qualify for PTSD, one only has to be debilitated by the stress of anticipating trauma. No longer must you get wounded, kill somebody or witness your buddy get turned into viscera to qualify for shell-shock. Now it is enough to stay in the green zone and worry if your next trip to the market will result in you getting beheaded on YouTube, or constantly wonder if that kid selling bootleg DVDs by the camp entrance is rigged to explode.Critics say this dilutes the concept of PTSD, and some even contend that this is all part of a general softening of America. But I see the VA’s point. Much like Vietnam, the insurgency element of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put a lot of soldiers in the position of waiting for somebody to take a shot at them. There comes a creeping mental toll of such exposure.

At the heart of the argument, I suspect, is money. Right now, the VA spends about $5.4 billion just treating the mental problems of Vietnam veterans alone. The bill for returning vets from the current wars is already running about $350 million a year, and with divorce, alcoholism and suicide rates among returnees skyrocketing, one can only guess what the final price tag of this part of the wars will be. That places the VA squarely between those still smoldering over the healthcare debate and those who oppose the expansion of any kind of entitlement program. In military jargon, they call that a kill zone.

Our soldiers are the best in the world, but they are not invincible. And while it might be tempting for critics to write off PTSD as some kind of gravy train exploited by cheats and fakers, or the VA itself as a bloated federal program, the reality is that for almost a decade, we have been sending men and women into stresses the rest of us cannot fully comprehend. Not all who return will do so with healthy minds, and one way or another, the rest of us have to help them carry that weight, whether by funding the VA with tax dollars or funding their mental healthcare indirectly through private insurance.

Our returning soldiers are a new life & health crisis in the making, and it would be smart if we were honest with ourselves and treated it as such. We owe it to our veterans to take their burdens seriously…even if it makes us think twice about sending them into the battle.

“We owe it to our veterans to take their burdens seriously…even if it makes us think twice about sending them into the battle.


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