22 a Day
When I woke up the other morning, I received a text from a dear friend. The message I read made my heart sink and my stomach rise due to the awful news that we hear all too often. The death of a friend, a veteran, a hero to suicide.
Our military risks their lives to protect our freedom and our rights. 22 veterans take their own lives every day. It’s time the nation wakes up and addresses real concerns in our communities. These statistics are horrific and growing. We must not forget their sacrifice and dedication to our country and our freedom.
When the wounded return to our country, they are given access to some of the lowest forms of healthcare. They then have the challenge of navigating through the VA system. In my time as a doctor who works with veterans, I have seen and heard things that should never be acceptable: Patients that have been denied disability after stepping on an IED, amputee who was denied prosthetics because their doctor stated they broke the prosthetics that were actually never received, hundreds of veterans have had every drug imaginable thrown at them resulting in no change to their symptoms, additional health issues due to the overuse, and many times ending in suicide.
As a society, we sit on the sidelines and complain about taxes, sexual harassment in Hollywood, welfare, or what shoes the First Lady is wearing. We have lost our focus on the heroes who have fought to secure the freedom we are sitting in daily in the United States of America. When our heroes return from combat, they are expected to walk right back into civilian life as if they never experienced anything traumatic and life-changing. These events, especially when there are multiple tours of duty, accumulate and play in their minds like a nonstop movie reel.
The Label of Combat PTS (aka PTSD) as a mental health issue is hardly an identity these brave, and fierce men and women can bear to hear. The treatment options they are given are counseling and drugs. Combat PTS is much different and should be viewed as such. These traumatic events are ingrained with an emotional response that feeds a physical stress response. Combat PTS is often associated with brain injury and imbalances in the brain’s ability to produce and regulate hormones and neurochemicals. In our military personnel, that have had blast injuries, concussions, adrenal fatigue, high levels of stress and much more that underlay the diagnosis of PTS. I refuse to use the term PTSD in our veteran population because this is not a disorder, but a physiological response is happening in the brain from training and reacting to events experienced in war.
Anyone that sleeps 3-4 hours a day, fires heavy artillery (.50 Cal or larger), or has been in multiple firefights is at significant risk for Combat PTS. The innate reactions that are needed to survive such events are ingrained in areas of the brain called the limbic system. These reactions are in place to help us survive when we sense danger. These areas are not meant to be engaged all of the time.
When our Veterans return home, we as a nation do not understand why they can’t just shut it off or forget about it. It’s just not that simple. Imagine you have been through intense reaction training, “runnin’ and gunnin’” 24/7 and have been skillfully trained to react in very specific ways in order to stay alive. When you finish your enlistment and are now home with your family and friends, the programming does not change back to the life before enlistment like a light switch. Their brains have been reprogrammed, and many times damaged, so they are no longer functioning in a capacity where they can regulate emotions, responses, and triggers that are non-threatening – but perceived as a major threat due to their combat experiences. Their limbic system is stuck in “fight or flight” mode.
We must stop looking at this as a government or VA problem and realize this is a community and a social problem. Counseling is needed, not just for our veterans, but for our society. We can’t give veterans drugs and counseling and expect their reactions and feelings to disappear. It takes understanding, care, compassion, and outreach to help our heroes. Combat PTS is not a disease or a disorder nor is it solely a mental health issue. Combat PTS is a trained response that is difficult to control because of many other underlying factors such as sleep deprivation, concussions and changes in hormones to name a few. To truly help our veterans we need to educate society, provide real healthcare, and look at all the factors affecting their health. 22 a day is 22 too many, and it’s our responsibility as a society to help put an end to this.