Today, President Obama signed into law the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, or SAVE. The purpose of this act is to bring greater attention and support to military members and veterans who suffer from trauma and mental health issues as a result of their service in war. This act will accomplish a number of things, to include improved treatment for servicemembers and veterans with PTSD, improved procedures for suicide prevention, and improvement for VA care. The act will also provide financial incentives for psychiatry students to serve with the VA. It is unclear at this time how much of an impact this act will really have but at least it’s a big step in the right direction.
It’s about time. For the first few years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military did a terrible job of identifying and providing support for those with combat stress. And the military was completely unprepared to deal with traumatic brain injury, or TBI. In 2004, while I was still serving on active duty as the Marine Corps’ Regional Defense Counsel for the West half of the United States and Iraq, I began noticing that many of the Marines and Sailors who needed legal help were those returning from multiple tours in combat. We began noticing that many of these men and women were having physical and mental problems. Many were withdrawn, having trouble sleeping, on edge, having nightmares, unable to cope with normal conditions of society. We saw misconduct related to alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, adultery and other offenses. We couldn’t put our finger on it but we knew we were seeing a trend. So, along with my boss from Washington DC, we went around and briefed several general officers about what we were finding and warning that something had to be done to address this problem. We received little response, lip service at most. At the same time, commanders and senior officers and NCOs would often rebuke any notion that PTSD was a problem. Many just didn’t believe in it. It was an excuse, a dodge, a sign of weakness. We even had a regimental sergeant major address all the enlisted members of one regiment to order them that there will be no such problems in his regiment. There was little treatment or support and no screening or accommodations for those suffering. Most would just keep to themselves. It became more and more prevalent as time went on.
Soon, there were scandals and investigations regarding the treatment of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who suffered from PTSD. Suicide rates within the services began to rise. Congress began to investigate at places like Camp Pendleton and Fort Carson. Still, there was a lot of pushback, even if not outwardly, from within the services. Somehow, I believe commanders thought that if their men and women suffered from PTSD that somehow it was a reflection of failed leadership. But it became apparent that many suffered, both enlisted and officer. Eventually, treatment became more common place and those seeking help were not scorned. Policies were changed to accommodate such men and women. They even changed policies surrounding security clearances so that those seeking counseling for PTSD were not automatically denied a clearance. Mandatory screening for PTSD was put in place for all those returning from a combat zone. Military and VA doctors started recognizing and treating servicemembers. Veterans started receiving disability ratings for this often debilitating condition. But still it hasn’t been enough.
We screen young men and women for the military, disqualifying those who are not mentally or physically fit to serve. We train them. We often send them to combat where some of those men and women become broken. Broken physically. Broken spiritually. Broken mentally. They weren’t broken when we sent them over. Like the saying goes, “You break it, you buy it.” We broke them. We owe it to them to try and fix them. I don’t know if the Clay Hunt SAVE Act is the answer but at least it’s a big step in the right direction.