Wachtler: Time for our service to the vets

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(Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin/)

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But it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, and "Chuck him out, the brute!"

But it's "Savior of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot.

-- "Tommy" by Rudyard Kipling


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In just over a week we'll be celebrating Memorial Day, honoring those who died in service to the nation. In honoring them, we must also resolve not to forget the living who have fought for our country. Unfortunately, in times past, we've been prone to treat our veterans like Kipling's Tommy Atkins. When the war is over, the veteran is not only forgotten but often abused.

This was the way we treated our Vietnam combat veterans. Hundreds were consigned to prisons for crimes they committed as a result of drug abuse, alcoholism and manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder -- all invariably associated with and as a result of their military service. At one time, there were more than 200,000 of these veterans in our prisons.

In our haste to lock them up, we not only forgot our gratitude, we also seemed to forget that there is such a thing as the hidden wounds of war -- ones that afflict the mind.

This year, with the cessation of hostilities in Iraq, there will be 100,000 troops returning home. Over 2 million have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 800,000 have served more than one tour. It is estimated that 35 percent of those soldiers and marines who deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately suffer from PTSD, with 20,000 new sufferers for each year the war lasts.

Despite the heroic efforts of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, less than 40 percent of service members diagnosed with PTSD receive mental health services. Last month it was reported that in anticipation of the returning Iraq veterans, there will be a 10 percent increase in VA mental-health personnel. That's wonderful, but it's still not enough. Many veterans in need of treatment are on wait lists, and many others don't know how to navigate the system.

As a result, and because of the lag between the time of trauma and the reporting of the trauma -- from days to many years (it's generally much longer when people are still in the military) -- we have yet to experience the full impact of this malady on our veterans in particular, and society in general. PTSD can lead to depression and problems of memory and cognition. In addition, and as a unique characteristic of the current conflicts, the concussion of car bombings and other explosive devices have caused a physical trauma to the brain, which in turn can cause acute mental illness. A study published this month in the journal Science Translational Medicine found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- the same injury now being linked to some professional football players -- in the brains of numerous deceased soldiers.

Tragically, because of the stigma associated with mental illness, thousands of afflicted veterans will not seek treatment. Instead, they will self-medicate with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to cure themselves -- or simply to forget the blood and horror. The inevitable consequence of alcoholism and addiction, known in treatment circles as co-occurring disorders, is domestic violence, homelessness and, inevitably, interaction with the criminal justice system.

 

Even more frightening is the fact that for every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, 25 veterans are dying by their own hands. The sad statistic is that, in Iraq or Afghanistan, an American soldier dies every day and a half, on average. Yet, according to the Defense Department, more than 6,500 veteran suicides occur every year. The veteran suicides in a single year exceed the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

This tragic statistic embraced one of Nassau County's own in February. This veteran served in the Marines for five years. In 2008, after returning from a tour in Iraq, he was honorably discharged. He was diagnosed with PTSD and with other manifestations of mental illness and, as is too often the case, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs. While being treated by the VA, he was arrested for driving under the influence.

We do not know all the details of the treatment he received after his arrest. What we do know is that while being treated psychiatrically, he was again arrested and taken to the Nassau County jail. After spending a day there, Bartholomew Ryan, age 32, hanged himself in his cell.

We may never know whether Ryan could have been saved. But we do know that this is the kind of tragic loss that we must make every effort to prevent. A veteran who served this nation and survives a tour in Iraq should not die in a county jail, as did Bartholomew Ryan.

 

It is to prevent such tragedies, and thanks to the leadership of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the district attorneys of Kings, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties, that we now have Veterans Courts in these jurisdictions. Such courts help our returned servicemen and women get the help they need by diverting them to treatment programs instead of prison.

Kipling wrote:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";

But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

 

A resolve to increase the number and expand the use of these courts is the least we can do to say thank you, even after the band stops playing, and help salvage the lives of those who fought so valiantly for our country.

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