Sunday, November 11, 2018

Beyond "Thank You For Your Service"

This is the final post in the Veteran's Day series.

At 6pm this evening, 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.

While interviewing veterans for ANYTHING BUT OKAY research, the question of the oft repeated phrase “Thank you for your service” came up. As with any group, active service people and veterans are not a monolith, and the viewpoints on civilians using that phrase garnered mixed reviews.

As for this civilian, I’ve said TYFYS, but it never seemed like enough — it felt more like lip service than genuine gratitude, which needed to be expressed in more concrete ways, like adopting a soldier or donating to, or, eventually, writing a book that will hopefully encourage young people who might not have much direct contact with < 0.5% of the U.S. population that is active duty military to discuss and think about the challenges faced by our returning soldiers and their families. As Colorado Army National Guard captain Karthik Venkatraj wrote in the Denver Bar Association Docket magazine, “Our nation continues to experience a groundswell of support for our veterans — a welcome change from the horrific treatment of our Vietnam-era veterans — but we still have much work to do. As a nation, we have to move beyond “thank you for your service” to a deep scrutiny of the issues impacting our veterans in order for our veterans to transition successfully.”

How, though, do we move toward that deeper scrutiny?

The first step to that is asking questions and starting a conversation, above and beyond the catchphrase. Wes Moore described some of the challenges of starting such conversations to Candy Crowley in this 2014 interview: “What we’re asking for is that the conversation doesn’t end there, because at times when you say “Thank you for your service” and then the conversation ends, we almost feel like you’re almost saying it for your benefit, not necessarily for our benefit. What we want is for people to be able to ask questions, for people to feel comfortable.” Moore goes on to discuss the transition with his own family, because family members weren’t sure what to ask and were afraid to say the wrong thing. As a result, in order to avoid offense or triggering, people might decide to say nothing. “The problem is that from our side, if a person simply says nothing, our interpretation is ‘you don’t care,’” Moore said.

It's also important for civilians to work to understand the issues that face our active duty troops and veterans. Here are’s Big Six:

1) Continue to combat suicide among troops and veterans - Just like Rob in Anything But Okay, a 2017 member survey found that 65% of IAVA members knew a post-9/11 veteran who attempted suicide, and 58% know a post-9/11 veteran that died by suicide.

2) Fully recognize and improve services for women veterans Back in 2012, I worked with The Center for Sexual Abuse and Crisis Counseling to bring The Invisible War to the CT. In addition to other issues, women have faced being raped by people they trusted to have their six, and then being re-victimized as they try to get justice through military channels.

3)Defend Veteran and Military education benefits the post 9/11 GI bill is under threat of cuts from Congress, and veterans are being targeted by predatory practices of the for-profit education sector.

4)Reform government for today’s veterans Like Rob, too many vets have suffered as a result of lack of VA accountability. 82% of IAVA members are enrolled in VA healthcare, and 76% use VA benefits other than healthcare.

5) Initiate support for injuries from burn pits and other toxic exposures Like my friend Rob Jordan, whose 2014 Facebook post was one of the inspirations for Anything But Okay, “80% of respondents [to a 2017 IAVA member survey] were exposed to burn pits during their deployments and over 60% of those exposed reported having symptoms.”

6) Initiate empowerment of Veterans who want to utilize cannabis While Rob in Anything But Okay is prescribed pharmaceutical relief for his PTSD, a large majority including 75% of IAVA members under 35, view medical marijuana as more natural solution to PTSD. As someone who has been prescribed Xanax for non-combat related PTSD, I know I'd rather use cannabis than pharmaceuticals.

But perhaps one of the most important ways we can support our active duty military and our veterans is to pay attention to government policy and not be afraid to question, rather than falling prey to blind “my country right or wrong” faux patriotism.

As Army officer John Q. Bolton wrote in a Memorial Day post earlier this year, “Perhaps by questioning the fundamentals—the “why” instead of the so often discussed “what” in military operations—the public would be in a better position to demand action from a Congress that, heretofore, has largely abdicated serious oversight of foreign policy. Perhaps the public, instead of asking “what” we need to break the stalemate in Afghanistan, could ask “why” there is a stalemate at all—and whether American forces can truly ameliorate the structural, cultural, and historical obstacles to achieving desired ends there.”

We can support our troops and thank them for their service by being engaged and informed citizens, who pressure our representatives in Congress to do their job - providing oversight and checks on unfettered Executive branch authority. We can lobby them on the issues that are important to veterans. Change won’t happen without our involvement. As Stella eventually learns in Anything But Okay, “They can’t do it without us.”

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Finding the courage to question

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.

For over 14 years, I wrote political opinion columns - for the Hearst CT papers (Greenwich Time/Stamford Advocate) and then for CTNewsJunkie. I stopped writing regularly in mid-2017, because the toxicity of being a woman writing opinion online was starting to affect my ability to write fiction. Getting sent rape threats and pictures of concentration camps can do that to a person. I had to preserve the mental space and creativity to write what actually pays my bills.

It wasn't a decision I felt good about, because in allowing my voice to be silenced, it felt like letting the trolls win. But not entirely, as it turns out, because ANYTHING BUT OKAY turned out to be one of the most political books I've ever written.

One of the questions I was determined to explore in this book was "What is a patriot?" It's one I've been pondering for a long time, because I have been called unpatriotic so many times as a journalist, merely for asking questions about government policy. I wrote about that in this column dated July 8th, 2008. (click here for full size PDF for easier reading.)

A few days later, this Letter to the Editor appeared in the paper, written by a Greenwich resident and WWII veteran named Richard P. Petrizzi.

To the editor:
I am a veteran of World War II (U.S. Army).I have many friends who are veterans who have never worn a flag on their lapels or flow flags in front of their homes.

Yet these same people went to war to fight the dictators who were trying to conquer the world. We fought at that time to preserve our freedoms, including freedom of speech.

I urge Sarah Darer Littman to keep writing her column and standing up for what democracy is really all about.

Richard P. Petrizzi, Greenwich

His words meant so much to me. I cut that letter out and pinned it above my desk. Whenever I felt like giving up, or people warned me to be careful about pissing off too many powerful people, I'd look up at his letter and keep going. I wish, more than anything, I'd written to him at the time to tell him how much what he said meant to me, and how his words gave me courage. Unfortunately, by the time I tried to contact him he had already passed.

There's a lesson here: Don't wait to tell people when they've influenced your life for good.

But more than that, there's the idea that patriotism isn't about outward trappings. It's not about how big of a flag you wave, or simply calling yourself a patriot in your Twitter handle and then sending hate speech to everyone who doesn't agree with you. It's not about "My Country - Right or Wrong." Rather it's about what Senator Carl Schurz said in a speech on October 17th, 1899:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”—Schurz, “The Policy of Imperialism,” Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, pp. 119–20 (1913).

Stella, the main character in ANYTHING BUT OKAY wonders about patriotism - what it is and who gets to define it. Her parents both served in the first Gulf War, and her older brother is an Afghanistan vet. She asks some of her parents' veteran friends how they define being a patriot.

Here's one of the answers:

To me, being a patriot means not being afraid to asks questions. Questioning doesn't mean a lack of love for one's country. It means the exact opposite.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Passed Down PTSD - A 2nd generation veteran perspective. Guest Post by Diane Van Hook

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