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Stop Pandering to Veterans

Advocates for returning service members want serious engagement—not rhetoric used to score partisan points.

Americans were shocked recently to find out that one by one, 14 Marines who had served together in a single unit in Afghanistan had committed suicide since returning to the states in 2008, with several more attempting to end their lives, sometimes repeatedly.

In November, TAC talked to Tommy Rieman, an Iraq War vet besieged by demons, who drove his car into a tree to end his own life. Fortunately he failed.

The first common thread in these incidents is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The second is that these vets wanted to harm themselves, not others. The third thing is they didn’t seek help earlier for fear of looking unhinged and helpless in the eyes of society.

So when Sarah Palin seemed to be blaming her son Track’s recent domestic assault charge on PTSD—and however indirectly, President Obama’s “disrespect” for the troops—veterans across the board delivered a swift and uniform rebuke. It’s probably one of the reasons why “Momma Grizzly” seems to have been packed off by Donald Trump and returned to Alaska C.O.D.

Underneath her nonsense lies a very dangerous allegation — that all veterans are ticking time bombs, ready to brandish weapons,” tweeted Afghanistan veteran and writer Nate Bethea, who recounted his own PTSD and how, during his darkest moments, “at no point did I lash out at anyone, because that would have made me feel worse. It would have confirmed my suspicions of being defective.”

The news broke of Track Palin’s arrest the morning of her January 20 stump speech. Track allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face with a closed fist, kicked her and threatened to kill himself with an AR-15 rifle. This wasn’t the first time the 26-year-old Iraq vet had been in trouble. In 2014, Track and sister Bristol Palin were involved in a well-publicized drunken brawl involving at least 20 individuals at a Wasilla party. Palin, ever-ready to paint broad garish strokes for political expediency, attempted to foist this one over as political-personal testimonial for Trump’s candidacy:

So, when my own son is going through what he goes through after coming back, I can certainly relate with other families who kind of feel these ramifications of some PTSD and some of the woundedness that our soldiers do return with—and it makes me realize more than ever, it is now or never for the sake of America’s finest, that we have that commander-in-chief who will respect them and honor them.

After covering veterans issues for 20 years, beginning with PTSD among Vietnam veterans, then Gulf War Illness, and now a whole new war, this reporter can tell you there is nothing that provokes veterans more than politicians suggesting they are crazy and unfit for society. PTSD is a mental condition, and while tens of thousands or more of active duty military and recent veterans are suffering from it, along with other illnesses like service connected depression and anxiety, context is everything. Indulging in caricatures to make a buck (Hollywood), or to win elections (politicians), is a no-go zone for vets.

As Bethea wrote later in the New York Times:

That (healing) process begins by speaking frankly. Facing up to destructive or abusive behavior comes next, along with the assertion that we are responsible for our actions, no matter what burdens we carry. Post-traumatic stress is no excuse for violence or abuse, nor should it be considered a default association. I’d like to hope that, beneath the bluster and the political talking points, Sarah Palin understands this. I hope even more that her son seeks care and finds peace.

This is not political correctness. it is a matter of protecting everything each generation has worked for, says Hal Donahue, a Vietnam veteran and writer who focuses on veterans issues. He says it took decades, but society today is more open and welcoming to troubled veterans, and this in turn has encouraged more men and women than ever to seek help when they need it.

“We are making progress—it has been a bipartisan effort and it has been working. To damage that for political reasons is appalling,” said Donahue.

“Guys with PTSD—and I know many of them—are more likely to hurt themselves more than anyone else. She basically linked PTSD to domestic violence. It is not an image that helps veterans.”

That Palin made these assertions during a hyper-media-magnified political speech made it more unseemly because one of the loudest complaints by veterans during campaign season is that for all the tub thumping for war—particularly by Republicans—there is hardly anything left for vets when they come home, save for the “tie the yellow ribbon” platitudes and a few crumbs about funding the the VA.

We are hearing a lot from the candidates about their plans to send our military to face the world’s threats, but little about how they plan to take care of them when they come home,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

After dropping out of last week’s Fox-sponsored debate, Donald Trump announced he would hold his own event to compete with it, and donate the funds raised to veterans’ groups. Rieckhoff called it out as gimmickry, and said IAVA wouldn’t accept any of Trump’s money if offered.

“We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts,” he tweeted Thursday afternoon. He told MSNBC that he hoped PTSD and veterans did not become a “chew toy” during the rest of the campaign.

Leo Shane, a writer for Military Times, illustrates the sad reality when it comes to veterans’ issues in the campaign. After 14 years of non-stop war and over 2 million men and women serving, he tweets, “veterans” were mentioned all of 10 times over the course of six GOP debates. The Democratic candidates did better with 21 mentions over six debates. Of course after Trump raised the issue Thursday in his own ringleader fashion, the Republican candidates, both in the so-called undercard debate and on stage at the main event, found their inner veterans’ advocate. But most sensed the pandering.

“The evening was the culmination of a week of political posturing with wounded service members confusingly thrust in the middle of the Republican fight,” Shane wrote afterwards.

“We are tired of being pawns in political games. We are tired of being forgotten once we serve. We are tired of being ignored in political debates by the people who would assume the role of Commander-in-Chief,” tweeted Tim Everett, who says he is a recent veteran and indie filmmaker, after the September 16 GOP debate.

“What comes after war? Peace—not a single reference to peace last night,” he continued. “What comes after war? Healing and therapy, trauma and horror. PTSD. Surgeries. Medicine. Endless waits at the VA. Not a single reference to the plight of veterans.”

Palin struck a nerve for all these reasons and more. The fact is, soldiers from the wars that Palin and others have so strenuously promoted have been coming home changed, if not damaged. Studies have indicated that yes, individuals with combat-related PTSD can be more prone to violence, including domestic abuse, than those veterans without PTSD. Much of that is fueled by substance abuse and other factors. Some vets suffering from PTSD also have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). It can be difficult to sort out all of these risk factors.

Take the “Lethal Warriors,” the name given to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, and the subject of a book by Colorado Gazette reporter Dave Philipps. When they returned from two bloody tours in Iraq, taking the most casualties of any Fort Carson brigade combat team, they became the most infamous group stateside. “Since 2005,” Phillips wrote in his original series, “the brigades’ returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping, and suicide.”

But Philipps’ in-depth interviews and research were more than just shock-doc storytelling. He wanted to convey that there are consequences when redeploying people already damaged by war (or in some cases, not psychologically fit for combat in the first place). He wanted to show that these men asked for help and did not get it. He later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing that the military was responsible for discharging thousands of soldiers without benefits for “misconduct,” many who were wounded and needed mental health care.

Sadly, an Army report released just before Philipps’ “Lethal Warriors” series showed that the base itself had failed to provide the support for returning soldiers that would help prevent the violence and self-destruction rampant at Fort Carson. Then-Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker said the risk factors (repeated high intensity deployments, PTSD, substance abuse, failures in leadership, stigma and other barriers to help) were a “toxic mix” that let to the shocking statistics there.

So it’s complicated, a mess that war promoters like Palin had a hand in making, but now want to use as a bludgeon against their political opponents. Veterans and their advocates won’t let that happen. They know PTSD is complex. Many of the veterans treatment courts popping up around the country take on violent offenders, for example, as well as DUIs and substance abusers.

Veterans know the first step is taking responsibility for their actions. They just ask that politicians like Palin do the same. And they would appreciate it if public figures would keep veterans issues out of their partisan endorsement speeches.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.



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