Cover Story Article

Healing Wounds New and Old


Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and president of Give an Hour

Special to Veterans Advantage

I recently had the honor of participating in two important gatherings—both designed to assist our military community. The first was a three-day event coordinated by a group of nonprofit organizations. It focused on military families. A group of 50 leaders came together to discuss the major issues affecting these families. Essentially we were asked to develop plans to address the most pressing issues. Many of us knew each other; we all parked our egos at the door, rolled up our sleeves, and began to wrestle with some of the problems that result in pain and suffering for too many of our returning troops and their families. In addition to the nonprofit leaders in attendance, several representatives of corporate America participated, as did high-level officials from governmental agencies.Many present were current or former military personnel, and some attendees were family members.

By the end of the event a list of top concerns was developed and several high-priority initiatives were outlined. Leaders—all of whom are extremely busy running their individual organizations - stepped up to declare their willingness to take responsibility for championing these initiatives. Work is now under way to further develop concepts, harness resources, and identify likely partners.

The second event was hosted by the Army and had a similar focus: identifying the primary issues and problems affecting our soldiers and their families, exploring possible solutions, and determining possible partnerships. Thirty leaders attended this three-day event including representatives of the nonprofit universe, leaders from the academic and business communities, and a number of retired military personnel and military family members. The goal of this event was to go outside the Army for possible solutions to the biggest problems currently affecting those who serve. Our time was spent developing consensus regarding the list of top priorities, determining gaps in current services, exploring solutions, and developing plans of action. Future meetings involving additional leaders and experts will take place in the spring. The coordinators of the Army event were well aware of the gathering that occurred several weeks prior. Many of us had attended both meetings and were eager to incorporate ideas that grew out of the first meeting so as to develop coordinated solutions to assist our military community.

What is going on here? Why is there so much time, energy, and money being devoted to the issues affecting returning troops and their families?

A change is under way. Within the military and certain segments of our society I see a growing awareness that our civilian and military communities must bridge the gap that exists between them and that has existed since Vietnam. One segment of our society is suffering the consequences of war—lives are significantly affected and sometimes severely damaged—because of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combined, these wars have lasted longer than any war our country has ever fought. Clearly, many more lives will be affected, many more will be damaged, before these conflicts end. Some at the Pentagon suggest that even as these conflicts come to a close, other "hot" spots will erupt, forcing men and women in the armed forces into harm's way in other regions of the world.  

I am frequently asked to explain why the nonprofit world should "pick up the slack" to care for service members and their families. "Isn't this the job of the military  or of the federal government?" people wonder.  "Why should civilians get involved and fill gaps the Pentagon or the VA should be covering?" While I understand the perspective behind the questions, they leave me feeling sad. They often come from people who have no experience with the military and don't know anyone who has ever served. 

Similarly, I am often asked by members of the military to explain why a civilian founded an organization whose mission is to ask civilian mental health professionals to step up and give their time to offer free care to those who serve. Why, they want to know, do you care? I understand this point of view as well, but the query still unnerves me.

There was a time in our history when these two cultures—military and civilian—shared a vision and a mission. It was a time before Vietnam, before Korea. My father served in World War II. He came home to a country that was proud of its service members, a country that sacrificed during the war. The cultural factors that lead to the division in our culture are complex and deeply entrenched. Americans in their twenties and thirties had no role in the division, and so most don't understand the factors that lead to the anger and the mistrust between the civilian and military cultures. They have no memory of society ever being different. They step into the rolls assigned to them by the family or group they most closely identify with, for in our country you are either part of the military community or you have little awareness of or interest in what is happening to those who serve. Still, just as the events swirling around the Vietnam War lead to a massive cultural shift in our country, it appears that the current conflicts may open the door to the healing of some very old and ugly wounds. 

Some of our top military officials are leading the way. They are reaching out to those of us in the nonprofit sector, the business world, and the civilian community at large who share this vision. We believe that we can effectively care for the men, women, and families who give so much, who ask for so little, and who need our help. And yet, although our military and national leaders understand the seriousness of the issues that we must face together and although they are devoting a tremendous amount of energy, time, and money to these issues, we still have many obstacles we must overcome in order to stop the bleeding.

What are the challenges that interfere with progress in working together to solve the numerous problems currently affecting our service personnel? Some are institutionally grown obstacles, and not all are within the military establishment. It is true that the Pentagon and the VA are slow to change, slow to open their doors, slow to embrace innovation, and slow to accept help. It is also true that some within these institutions are invested in blocking collaboration because they perceive a threat to their power. It is also true, however, that some critical civilian organizations are reluctant to  get involved and prefer to look the other way, even though they could do so much to assist the efforts underway to care for our military personnel. 
It is also a challenge to capture our nation's attention—for more than a sound bite. Politics dictate that those topics of interest to the American public get more attention and receive more resources. There are so many competing needs, important and worthy causes that deserve our attention, as well as those that do not but hold our country's interest because they are sordid or sensational.

Fortunately, most Americans are now able to separate the soldier/marine/sailor/airman from the war. Most Americans want to help prevent the damage we witnessed following Vietnam. It is the job of those of us who understand the issues to raise awareness, tell the stories of those who serve, and seek and develop solutions for the many issues currently affecting our military community.

Clearly, there is no easy solution, no single campaign that will keep our nation's focus on the issues affecting those who serve and their families, no feasible policy that will remove the bureaucratic obstacles preventing more efficient and effective coordination of care. There is much heavy lifting that remains, much work we must continue to do if we are to take advantage of the current climate. But, if we are successful in seizing the current opportunity for a cultural shift in interest and understanding, then we may be able to engage citizens across the country and create exactly the community environment that each member of OUR military needs to have a truly successful return home.

Give an Hour, providing free mental health services to military personnel and their loved ones, at www.giveanhour.org.

Editors Note: Give an Hour is a strategic partner of Veterans Advantage. Learn more about our partnership with Give an Hour.

Veterans Advantage is also hosting a special online PTSD Transition Center for its members, with customized news and resources to help in this vital area.

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