Sunday, May 4, 2008

Something Good to Say About America

In this day and age, you hear a lot of dire predictions about the future of the United States. The warnings have become all too familiar: The sub-prime crisis is pulling the economy into the toilet. The Iraq War is raging on with no end in sight. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Miley Cyrus showed too much skin in Vanity Fair and is no longer a suitable role model for tweens. Barack Obama will lose the election because of his ex-pastor. The list goes on and on.

There are good things happening in America, too. One of the things I'd like to do in this Blog is draw attention to those positive aspects of contemporary American society to show that there are reasons to be hopeful.

The Veterans Affairs Department announced on Friday, May 2, that it will allocate $2 million to the the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is an encouraging move. For those of you who are unfamiliar with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is a severe anxiety disorder that affects countless combat veterans. Even though combat stress has been around as long as there have been wars, our contemporary understanding of PTSD and its effects dates back to the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s and 1970s, an brave group of psychiatrists and physicians -- many of them motivated by antiwar sentiments -- pioneered studies of PTSD in Vietnam combat veterans.

For the longest time, PTSD was ignored, despite the hard work of medical professionals and Vietnam veterans to bring it to the attention of the American public, politicians and the media. It was a lonely struggle that seemed to go nowhere at the time. Flash forward 30, 35 years: Countless Iraq War vets returned from combat with PTSD and little support from the Veterans Administration. History seemed to be repeating itself. Once again, veterans were getting shabby treatment. But thanks to effective lobbying efforts and some tragic incidents of violence involving PTSD-scarred Iraq War vets, the times are slowly changing. Some surveys have indicated that as many as 25 percent of Iraq War vets suffer from some form of PTSD. A headline in the February 28, 2005 issue of USA Today said it all: "Trauma of Iraq War haunting thousands returning home." As a Reuters report from May 2 noted:

"RAND Corp estimated that 300,000 troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from symptoms of PTSD or depression. Military studies have seen similar results. The Army in February said 17.9 percent of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced acute stress, depression or anxiety in 2007."

Now we're starting to see some long overdue action on this front. The funding of the PTSD Center is hopefully but a first step. I know what the skeptics are going to say: $2 million is chump change compared to the billions -- trillions -- that have been funneled into the charnel house that is Iraq. True, true. I can't argue there. But when you consider that the federal government refused to even acknowledge the existence of PTSD in the 1970s, this is a great leap forward.

Iraq War vets have been treated poorly from the outset. A recent video on YouTube depicting the living conditions of returned troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina shocked the world. The scenes of squalor, backed-up sewage pipes, cracked toilet seats repaired with tape, and other obscene conditions helped open a lot of eyes about the treatment of America's veterans. In response to the uproar caused by the video, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised America that conditions would be improved for Iraq War vets. He also said that vets returning with PTSD would be able to obtain treatment in privacy, without it being noted on their military records.

How a nation treats its veterans says a great deal about that country. Only World War II vets received the outstanding treatment they deserved, thanks to the GI Bill. Veterans of all other wars have endured the worst treatment imaginable. Where is today's GI Bill? Where are the fearless advocates for the veterans? I don't see them. But maybe this new PTSD Center marks the beginning of a shift -- albeit a slight one -- in a new direction....

In the nineteenth century, abolitionist and human rights activist Frederick Douglass said that power concedes nothing without a demand. Those words are just as true today as they were in Douglass's day.

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