Saturday, January 31, 2009

Courage Comes In Several Varieties

Having never been part of the military, the awards that are given to combatants have never been part of my experience. This morning, though, I see an op-ed that makes me just sad for my country. It seems our military thinks that the only kind of suffering that requires courage is physical.

Many of the wounds of the kind of battle that involves military against civilian populations are mental affliction. The suffering of our troops involves more than physical pain and disabling. Confronted with the injustice they are required to inflict cannot help but hurt their stability, and self-esteem.

When I was in Iraq, the most common wound behind the many Purple Hearts we awarded was the "perforated eardrum," an eardrum punctured by the concussion of a nearby explosion. In the vast majority of cases, no blood was ever shed. Seldom did these Marines ever miss a day of full duty. And yet they were all awarded the coveted medal.

A year later, back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., I was making calls to the families of wounded Marines – a difficult duty even when the wounds are minor. But I noticed during that time that I never once made a call to a family about a Marine's psychological wounds. I never got a casualty report for post-traumatic stress, despite the rising number of veteran suicides. Never once.

Why, I asked myself, if a combat wound is a combat wound no matter how small, shouldn't those people suffering from the "invisible wounds" of post-traumatic stress also receive the Purple Heart? Difficulty of diagnosis is one of the central justifications the Pentagon has given, citing the concern that fakers will tarnish the medal's image. Spilt blood cannot be faked.

But this seems an unconvincing argument not to honor those who actually do suffer from post-traumatic stress. For example, the possibility of fakers has not prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from awarding disability payments to service members who have received a diagnosis. Why should the military itself be different?

The distinction, I suspect, lies in the deep-seated attitude toward psychological wounds. It is still difficult for many members of the military to truly believe that post-traumatic stress is, in fact, an injury and not the result of a weak or dysfunctional brain. The same culture that demands tough-mindedness also encourages skepticism toward the suggestion that the violence of war can hurt the healthiest of minds.


What we require of military service should be very much the major consideration for awarding service awards. When we produce veterans wounded deeply in ways that are not physical, we should be ashamed not to honor them. Mental suffering is real, and many of us have experienced it. We need to leave our prejudices aside in evaluating what is worth our respect.

The fear of being recognized for mental suffering is a part of the affliction trauma victims are subject to, and giving them the respect they've earned would be a step toward easing that suffering.

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4 Comments:

Blogger George said...

Remember Patton slapping the soldier who was suffering from battle fatigue?
Whether the incident actually occurred or not, the story illustrates the attitude of the military towards PTSD.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

It's an attitude that contributes to the syndrome, of course.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

I have remarked on this matter.

Military brass regard any claim of injury that does not entail profuse bleeding o be a form of 'malingering.'

Nobody in their right mind would ever go on a second patrol if they had had to wade in the 'shit' on a previous one...

The brass will NEVER grant Purple Heart recognition to people who might be malingering...Nagahapun

12:57 PM  
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