Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Caring For The Troops

An article in the NY Times described a Pentagon program in effect since the start of the war in Afghanistan, a program which is actually pretty sensible.

Since 2004, every service man and woman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan has been given a CT scan, and since 2001, when the fighting began in Afghanistan, all have had autopsies, performed by pathologists in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. In previous wars, autopsies on people killed in combat were uncommon, and scans were never done.

The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and medical equipment used on the battlefield.

The full body CT scans are especially useful. Not only did this process alert the military to the deficiencies in armor and medical equipment, it also allowed for less invasive and time consuming autopsies because the CT scan pointed to what specific areas needed to be investigated more fully. Reports of the findings are then offered to the families of the fallen soldiers, and most families have requested the reports, even if those reports aren't actually read for years.

It's pretty hard to fault such a program, even given the expense involved. We do need to know what precisely killed each soldier and what can be done to reduce the number of future deaths of the same sort. That said, it would be even better if the Pentagon showed the same concern for those soldiers who are fortunate enough to walk away from the battlefield, but not so fortunate to do so without wounds, especially the invisible kind.

While the Pentagon is finally coming around to the fact that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real consequence of battle, it still makes it incredibly difficult for those stricken to get the kind of treatment and support they need, as this op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times makes clear. Written by Catherine Whitney, whose own brother suffered from PTSD and died alone and poor because he didn't get the treatment he needed and deserved, the article paints a bleak picture of what most soldiers face when that wound makes it difficult to cope with even the simplest of life's activities.

The sad part is that it's not like the military couldn't actually do something to mitigate the horror earlier on in the process, as Ms. Whitney points out:

Imagine how different this bleak picture might look if professional mental health screening were required for all troops, both before and after combat -- along with an adequate force of trained psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to meet the demand. It's an obvious first step, but it would require an organizational and financial commitment from Congress, the VA and the current administration. Unfortunately, for most people, PTSD is an abstraction. The lonely battle of lobbying for better services is mostly left to independent veterans groups and families of the afflicted.

There is a significant disconnect between what we say about supporting our troops and what we actually do. We seem to despise the weakness of the wounded soldier, especially when it is manifested by mental illness, social alienation or undefined degenerative diseases. Today's war heroes too often become tomorrow's poor, many living in rundown apartment complexes around military bases, where they can squeeze out discounts for their essential needs.

If we insist on sending our young men and women into battle, the least we can do is keep our promise to care for them afterward. If the Pentagon can afford expensive full body CT scan machines and numerous skilled medical examiners to perform autopsies, then surely it can find a way to afford the kind of full scale treatment suggested by Ms. Whitman. All it has to do is ask. I find it hard to believe that Congress or the President would turn them down. I know the American public would approve of such an expense.

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Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

The one, fool-proof way to protect the troops is to bring 'em home.

PS: The VA has had a HORRENDOUS record for being pro-active for vets. If it's gonna cost 'em more money, figger they'll find a way NOT to do something...

1:18 PM  
Blogger shrimplate said...

Why do you hate America?!

(I keed.)

1:58 PM  

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