Rob, one of the main characters in my latest Scholastic novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY, is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He struggling with PTSD, and in the book we see how it affects the entire family, including his sister Stella.
Starting today, in the lead up to Veteran's Day, I'll be posting a series of pieces about some of the issues our military personnel face when they return from combat.
On Veteran's Day, at 6pm, there will be a random drawing for a set of 10 copies of ANYTHING BUT OKAY for your classroom or book club. You'll get an entry for retweeting this post (please tag me @sarahdarerlitt and hashtag #anythingbutokay) and additional entries for retweeting each of the posts between now and Veteran's Day. Rachel Alpine wrote a great teaching/reading guide, which you can download from my website.
Today I'm happy to welcome Diane Van Hook, veteran and graduate of the low-residency MFA program at WCSU.
I went in to the Army with PTSD.
It wasn’t diagnosed at the time, and wouldn’t be until after I’d already left active duty. I also had depression and anxiety, which continue to this day.
I don’t know of many other service members that sought mental health care while on active duty. I knew I had issues that needed addressing, so for the last two years of active duty, I saw a non-military therapist on post.
But when I left active duty, I didn’t entirely trust Veterans Affairs to help me, especially since my PTSD wasn’t service related.
That had a lot to do with my dad.
I’m a second generation Army veteran, and my father was a Vietnam veteran. Some might say that my mental health issues were an inevitability because his service. It’s a somewhat frequent trope in fiction: the child of veterans from the older wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc) suffering some sort of abuse from the service member. The thing is, Dad’s service wasn’t the issue. At least, it didn’t help the issues that were already there. And it definitely added to them.
The issue was my father’s inability to handle his own mental health issues. There’s no doubt in my mind my father had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Unfortunately, there were far too many sources that contributed to it.
Maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of the stigma for seeking help he obviously needed. Maybe he thought it was a weakness he needed to overcome by himself. I couldn’t tell you, and I couldn’t ask him if I wanted to. He passed away a couple of weeks before I finished Basic Training.
In any case, he’d made his opinion of the VA clear: he didn’t trust them for anything past his yearly physical and sending him his medications. He spent a lot of time disparaging various groups and organizations, but he took care to specify he didn’t trust the mental health personnel.
And despite my efforts in trying to purge myself of the vitriol I’d heard him spew over the years, I couldn’t shake everything. So I carried that residual distrust of the mental health staff when it came time to confront the fact that I had depression and anxiety, and needed to be on medication for them. And instead of seeing a therapist employed by the VA, I chose a civilian one.
And for a few years, the combination of therapy and medication helped.
But as anyone who’s taken any sort of medication long term knows, taking the same dosage over time ceases to be as effective as it once was. When the time came to increase the dosage of my antidepressants, I was required to speak with one of the psychiatric personnel.
In 2010, a few months after I’d initially left active duty and had begun pursuing my degree, I received mobilization orders; in other words, I’d been recalled to active duty. Once I’d reported, I knew I’d need to continue with the therapy I’d started before and I needed to make sure that the higher ups understood why this was a priority for me. The last thing I needed was to get deployed and have an old issue crop up mid-firefight.
A two hour conversation and many tears later, I’d given the mental health Army doctor the truncated version of the series of unfortunate events that had been my life. Needless to say, the physician thought it’d best if I didn’t return to active duty. I received the official diagnosis for depression, the recommendation of therapy, and the orders sending me back home for good.
Flash forward to a year ago, when I was talking to the VA psychiatrist as to why I needed an increase in dosage. At that point, I was well practiced giving the Reader’s Digest version of events, because I didn’t have two hours to spare.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I don’t require nearly as much help as some of the other veterans I’ve become acquainted with over the years. One vet friend, who’d retired from the US Navy and was on disability, had been prescribed meds prescribed that conflicted badly with each other. This affected him so badly that at times he wanted to go to sleep and didn’t want to wake up again.
I lose 22 comrades-in-arms, my camo brothers and sisters to suicide everyday. That fact is beyond a travesty. It’s a shameful stain on the government that branded us their property. We signed a contract, agreeing to sacrifice our time, our families, and our lives in service to our country, with the reciprocation being if something happened to us, we’d be taken care of. But the support system set up to assist us seems to do more harm than good in its dysfunction. And not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the current administration. They just managed to make a broken system worse.
I’ve been asked in the past how non-military people can help active duty, veterans, and their immediate families. I can’t give a definitive answer because we all differ in our experiences. What would help me probably wouldn’t work for someone else. The best answer I can give is to keep asking the question: how can I help? Ask any veteran you meet that you know needs some sort of assistance.
That might mean lending an ear, a helping hand, a kind word, or something else entirely. Holding responsible those who use veterans as pawns for political gain. Demanding inquiries as to why the standard of care is so abysmal.
The price of freedom isn’t free, and some of us have paid more than others.
But when do we stop paying?
When is it enough?
When are we enough?
Diane Van Hook is a second generation Army veteran recently graduated from Western Connecticut State University with her MFA. She currently resides in Connecticut, and has more books than bookcases. Read her piece Frag Out at Militaryexperience.org.