Helping our wounded warriors heal, one day at a time

Genevieve Beenen • for The Review

Recent news has included several stories of former military personnel committing violence against those close to them. My response, like others I’m sure, has been one of a deep sense of grief. I know that many wise and more knowledgeable individuals are responding not only with grief but with serious thought about to how to address those multi-layered tragedies. They will find the answers; here I can only express the concern many of us must feel.

Our nation assures us we have a policy not to engage in war until we have an exit strategy. We need an equally thoughtful exit strategy for our military personnel when they return from those wars. Military training is one thing; to live in the climate of war; to attack and kill humans, to be wounded and/or survive threats of being killed — those must be horrific experiences that training can only approximate. Those experiences cannot be removed and packed away with the military uniform but remain indelibly imprinted on bodies and minds.

We have a moral responsibility to heal the violence of war still raging in our military personnel when they return home. We ask too much of them when we expect them to live the rest of their lives with such insuperable burdens.

Every day we have returned veterans killing themselves because they cannot adjust to “normal” life or because they cannot accept what they saw and did. We have wounded warriors breaking down after months or even years of effort to return to “normal.”

We have a responsibility to these young people we cheered as they marched off to war. They are our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends. We call them our heroes. If, after returning home, they break and resort to violence, we cannot simply tell them they are on their own and sentence them to prison. They did not choose to be wounded in that way. They did not deserve to be wounded in that way. Yes, perhaps some would have been violent even had they not gone to war. But that isn’t the point. We asked them to go; they went; and they were forever changed in ways neither we nor they could have anticipated.

And we remain in their debt.

We want them able to engage again in loving relationships. However pleasant a return to normal life may be, we can’t assume that simply changing diapers, getting a job, sitting down to a meal with their families will undo the harm done to them. They need to disengage from their warrior selves; they need the support of those who understand what they are going through; and their loved ones need and deserve to have them truly and safely back home.

When news headlines break these tragic stories, we are horrified. If we are also compassionate, we will want to prevent these breakdowns, prevent these crimes.

When wounded warriors commit violent crimes, we must respond to those actions as the result of their combat wounds. They must be given not punishment but treatment. Even if confined for reasons of safety for themselves and others, their confinement must be for their good; for the purpose of healing their wounds. Treatment must be better than drugging them into a state of lethargy or treating them like criminals. They deserve to have their better selves resurrected and be allowed to regain the executive functioning of their lives. They may well need the daily support of other veterans who know where they’ve been and to whom they can tell their stories, knowing they’ll be understood.

We have many forms of recovery groups active in our society. Those who attend listen to each other tell their stories, thus allowing members to admit ongoing or recurring stress, to acknowledge inner confusion and conflict. They offer each other daily encouragement and are examples to each other of making healthy choices. Perhaps military survival and support groups in every community around the country, could give military brothers and sisters a place to sit together in a safe environment to talk their way back into more positive experiences, one day at a time.

Under the Recovery Act scientists are working on a smartphone “app” that veterans can turn to when they feel the stress of their wounds pressing in on them. Hopefully that finds its way into their hands quickly. Service dogs and horses are offering some returning veterans safe opportunities to express and experience affection in healing ways. So, yes, thoughtful and compassionate attention is at work to heal our veterans.

We must continue those efforts until every returning veteran is reached and healed; until no more are overlooked; until we eliminate the numbers who resort to inward or outward violence. Until we reach them all, we must accept responsibility for the fallout of war whenever it strikes us here at home.

War will find us out. We honor our military when they go to war far away, facing violence we can’t even imagine. We support that war effort. We must continue to support it when those we have asked to serve return, even when they bring some of that war to our own doorsteps. If some cannot easily disengage from the violence, we cannot permit ourselves to disengage from them. If war and violence return home in the bodies and minds of our veterans, then it is our turn to stand up with and for them; it is our turn to defend them when they most need defending. We must reach out to help them find their way back to peace in body and mind.

They deserve the help. We owe it to them.

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