“Your tool should work, but you also have to know how to use it”

My initial instinct was to put my car into reverse and drive back to my parent’s house as I sat outside the Montgomery County Vet Center in Norristown, Pa. I was to have my first face-to-face mental health counseling session with someone who I had only spoken to over the phone. Yet, I knew that the previous nine months of despair, confusion and frustration had placed me at this precipice. Either I could retreat back into a life that didn’t meet my expectations, but one I just couldn’t escape, or I could leap out into a world where I allowed others to help me.

In the previous nine months, anxiety’s grip twisted my chest so tight that the only relief I could think of was wishing I could trade my body in for a new one. Up to that point, I thought I had no control over the physical torture my body was enduring. Days became tediously long hours filled with waves of vibrations coursing through my system. These weren’t the ones the Beach Boys were singing about, but swells of dread manifested from any sort of outside stimuli. I had returned from my second deployment to Iraq and was attempting to transition, again, back into the civilian world.

At first, I was able to maintain an outward appearance of normal; however, the cap I had on these intense emotions slowly began to disintegrate. “Is everything OK?” people would ask me. The inner turmoil began to bubble to the surface as my facial expressions consistently showed worry, intensity and fear. My once compassionate and patient nature dwindled as I grew easily and intensely frustrated with people close to me over the simplest of things. Doubt, an unfamiliar word to me up to that point in my internal vocabulary, accompanied every thought, decision, or interaction – my entire perspective of life itself. I had once led men in combat, and now, the most mundane decisions riddled me with crumbling worry.

The juxtaposition of what I was and what I had become filled me with embarrassment. How could an educated, trained and capable man not find a solution himself? Avoidance became by coping mechanism as I stepped away work, hobbies and any meaningful personal relationship that I had. The interpersonal interactions within those spheres only reminded me of how far gone I was. However, there must have been some glimmer of hope because I found myself researching mental health professionals, which brought me to the Department of Veterans Affairs website. I didn’t fully understand how the influences of my combat experiences had on my current state, but knowing that there were readily available and free mental health professionals at my disposal was enough for me to make a phone call.  

I called the center to seek more information. Immediately, I was forwarded to Allison Stanco-Aguilar, one of the counselors at the center. I explained to her, at least the best that I could, the details of my current state, and how I wanted to start counseling as soon as possible. I also explained that I wasn’t living in the immediate area, but was moving closer to the vet center in six weeks to live with my parents. She explained that it was against policy for the center to conduct phone sessions. This comment made me sink even further as I thought about another bureaucratic policy being a roadblock to my infant journey towards betterment.

 The curdling agony starting its brew inside my gut was immediately extinguished when she said that she understood the desperate state that I was in, and that she would gladly do weekly sessions over the phone until I was settled in Pennsylvania. What? Was this someone, who I’ve never met, willing to bend the rules to help me? Was this someone who put the betterment of the individual above the stacks of regulations? I can’t speak for Allison, but this is how I interpreted her actions that day, and can’t quite describe the sliver of hope that opened within me after hearing those words.

Over the next few weeks, Allison and I spoke over the phone. As you may see from the length of this story, I’m a bit of a talker. The phone sessions were a blur as I dumped years of stories, thoughts, theories and emotions through the receiver. Allison would meet me with understanding and patience as she allowed me to vent, which I latter understood as her way of getting to know me – to understand all the variables associated with how I ended up becoming one of her clients. She was a service-member herself, and she was able to identify with unique nature of military life – all its wonderfulness, contradictions, camaraderie, pain and thrill. There was also a practical side of these sessions. Allison explained to me how the cognitive therapy process works, which satisfied my analytical need to understand a system that has proven results. Finally, she provided a neutral and nonjudgmental outlet for me, where I didn’t have to worry about whether I looked too weak or be embarrassed about what I was feeling.

This brings us to back to the beginning of my story. What I’ve learned is that mental health improvement does not follow a linear path where you start off in one state and gradually get better. It’s a process that webs in many directions; filled with progress and setbacks, and small victories and defeats. Sitting outside the vet center waiting to meet Allison for the first time in person, the same feelings of dread and anxiety billowed in stomach and chest. I could’ve easily driven away and never called the vet center to cancel, or pick up the phone if they tried to reach out to me. There was no external consequence if I chose to not continue; no fines, ridicule, loss of pay, no responsibility to others, etc. There was only the internal consequence where I ignored my sole responsibility – to take care of myself.  

 Only in six weeks was she able to show me that taking care of yourself isn’t weak, but something that’s necessary. You’re only good to others when you’ve taken the time to make yourself better. Allison showed me that we’re capable of altering our perspective – it just takes time, effort and a willingness to give yourself over to the process.

I opened my car door, walked up the flight of stairs, opened the door to the vet center and was greeted by Allison. We’ve been meeting for almost 3 ½ years now. Through the acute training and experience she’s received by being a VA counselor, she’s been able to address my issues stemming from post-traumatic stress. She’s given me homework to do, which keeps me actively engaged in my therapy in between sessions. She’s assisted me in getting registered with the VA medical health system – exposing me to benefits I didn’t even know I was eligible for as a combat veteran. Allison was the prime advocate for me to file disability once I was diagnosed as having PTSD, which was a claim that was closed within 120 days. She’s even provided me information on other veteran outreach organizations in the Philadelphia area.

The partnership that we’ve developed is based upon trust, and the willingness of each of us to come to the table ready to get to work. She’s always demonstrated an incredibly high standard of professionalism, expertise, compassion and patience. I learned that it was my responsibility to be honest and candid while we had our sessions, and to do the work in between sessions that she requested of me.

My VA experiences have taught me that the road to improvement can’t solely be done by others. The veteran has to be an active participant. I was once consumed with so much anxiety that I felt I was completely paralyzed. The VA provided me an outlet to begin to take action – to take control of my life with the help and guidance of professionals that work within the system. I understand that the system isn’t perfect, and there should always be an ongoing process of accountability and improvement, but the sense of empowerment that the professionals at the VA have shown me has been life altering. The VA won’t carry you down the path, but will certainly help guide you down a more positive direction.

I’ve since enrolled in graduate school using my Post-911 GI Bill benefits, started on a promising and fulfilling career path, and have taken on leadership opportunities within veteran assistance organizations. I can’t imagine being here without the help of Allison, the Montgomery County Vet Center, and the host of employees within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Though I’m far from the crippling symptoms, I still go to counseling. It helped bring me to an even playing-field. Now, I use it as a life enhancer.  

Military Suicide Epidemic: An Institutional Problem or Society’s Status Quo?

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The following article is a research paper I recently completed for a graduate school class in Media/Journalism Critique. Military suicides have been in the news quite a bit over the past few months as statistics showed that there were more service member suicides than combat deaths in 2012, leading towards labeling the issue as an “Epidemic”. I conducted the following research to analyze this news frame. The analysis is in an academic format, however, the conclusion is something I hope that will spark a bit of social discourse. 

Introduction: Since 2001 the Department of Defense has released monthly suicide statistics among its Active Duty, National Guard and Reserve forces. Since the 1970’s the US Military has had a suicide rate lower than the US Civilian population, with as much as half during the 1980’s. Since 2001, the military suicide rate has been increasing, with the highest reported 349 suicides in 2012. Statistics indicate that the US Military suicide rate (males 17-60) is 20.5 per 100,000 (2012 figures), while the equivalent US Civilian suicide rate is 25 per 100,000 (2010 figures), according to the most recent figures available. Male figures are used in this research due to the fact the vast majority, over 80%, of the US Military is composed of this demographic.  In July 2012 Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta briefed the House Armed Services Committee and Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the increasing service member suicide rate saying “That is an epidemic. Something is wrong,” (Bloomberg News, July 25th, 2012). As suicide totals mounted in 2012, news outlets began to compare the figures with combat deaths in Afghanistan. 310 total US combat deaths were reported for 2012. This author, through random selection of 20 major Internet, magazine and newspaper articles, has identified the emergence of the “military suicide epidemic frame” by news outlets to describe the mental health status of the US Military by using statistics that suicides accounted for more deaths than those killed in combat operations during 2012.

Similarities: Of the 20 randomly selected articles the word epidemic was used 17 times in total with 16 of them in context with the fact that military suicide rates were increasing and totals had surpassed US Military combat deaths in 2012. Epidemic’s use was either a direct quote from government officials, such as Leon Panetta or Senator Patty Murray, “This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored,” or within the authors’ own text and article title. In each instance, the word epidemic or the fact that suicides outnumbered combat deaths in 2012, the authors placed these elements in the first 2 paragraphs of their articles in the majority of the 20 articles sampled. 

How the Department of Defense is combating the situation is the next most common subject covered by the samples. Of the 20 articles sampled, 19 provide information on government investments into counselors, mental health programming, suicide hotlines, “Resiliency” training for service members and studies on why service members commit suicide. Within these sections of the articles a quote from Department of Defense Spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith, “Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military,” appears 13 times. Within these sections authors use words like struggle, scramble or frustrated to describe how the Department of Defense feels about the issue and how their programming has not lessened the amount of suicides.

The authors then provide a myriad of examples of why US Military service members commit suicide. From the information provided, 2 categories are discussed: those exposed to traumatic combat events and those who haven’t deployed to a combat zone. The authors, supported by experts in mental health, indicate that those suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, typically show signs of high anxiety, depression and personality changes that can lead towards suicide as a release from the stress.  Those who’ve never been deployed to a combat zone account for 49% of those who committed suicide in 2012, a statistic that is described as “surprising” or “unexpected” by military officials. This category is described as having to deal with guilt in not deploying with colleagues to combat zones or highly stressed at work due to having to do the workload of 5-10 people while the majority of a unit’s personnel are overseas.

The final most salient topic discussed by the majority of the articles, which they tie into as part of the problem, is institutional stigma. As the authors describe variables that have influenced a service member to commit suicide or the profile of someone who is “at risk”, they provide quotes from military leaders and mental health experts working in the field that service members may avoid communicating their problem or seeking help due to not wanting to be looked at negatively by their colleagues or leadership. Information provided by military leaders highlight that this cultural variable within the institution has to change and what military leaders can do to help change the culture from within. “It’s important that the chain of command develops a culture and an environment that is acceptable,” GEN Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff.

Differences: 1 of the 20 sampled articles argues that this is not an epidemic as his colleagues in the media label it. The author, Tom Worstall of Forbes Magazine, provides the statistical break down comparing the Department of Defense’s statistics against the US Civilian statistics. He highlights the fact that the military statistics are still lower than the civilian population and Veteran statistics are only slightly higher. Worstall states that if we’re to label this as an epidemic or problem, then it’s not a military one, but rather a societal problem. “Given that the military suicide rate is similar to that of the country as a whole we’d have to conclude that the military suicide rate isn’t simply a military problem. If anything, it’s a societal one,” (Worstall, Forbes.com, February 2013).

4 of the 20 sampled articles provide information within their text that the US Military suicide rate is lower than the US Population rate. This information was generally provided either in the middle or towards the end of the article.

1 of the 20 articles provided a hint of why rising US Military suicide rates is in fact an issue that needs to be addressed. In a supporting video above the Robert Burns’ “Military Suicides Reach Record High in 2012”, Huffington Post Senior Military Correspondent David Wood states “This is a special category of people, they’re volunteers, they’re in an organization that’s really charged with taking care of them. So even though the rate is lower than the civilian population, I think the Defense Department has a huge responsibility to keep on trying to figure out why this is happening…”

The final key difference amongst the 20 sampled articles was providing Veteran suicide statistics. 3 articles provide statistics from the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs stating that 6,500 veterans committed suicide in 2012 or “1 every 80 minutes.” These statistics were used without or with little transition to describe the statistical differences between a service member and veteran. Veteran statistics were either in the same sentence using service member statistics or in the following sentence or paragraph.

Implications: The concept of agenda-setting can be witnessed throughout the sampled articles by using the word epidemic to describe the mental health status of the US Military. By using quotes from prominent government officials, such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta or Senator Patty Murray, the media is able to label this issue and use the word freely within their texts, supported by institution leaders who have more access to the media than an average citizen or service member.

Researchers Lind and Salo highlight in their article The Framing of Feminist and Feminism in News and Public Affairs Program in U.S. Electronic Media”, that words are ambiguous and attain meaning through context. The vast majority of the articles sampled gave meaning of the word epidemic by placing it in context with the fact that more service members died of suicide than in combat during 2012, despite the fact that US Military suicide rates are lower than their US Civilian equivalents. Even when articles provided information indicating that the US Military suicide rate was lower, the author’s structure choices in having this key piece of information in the middle or towards the end of the article can create disassociation for the reader as the reader may be unable link it directly to the information supporting the epidemic frame in the beginning of the article.   

Not 1 of the 20 articles sampled provided information on how mental health programming has helped service members avoid committing suicide.  This omission gives the audience the impression that despite the vast amount of government investments into combating the problem, the resources are ineffective and gives the epidemic frame more credibility amongst audiences.

Conclusion: Since Vietnam, with the end to draftee programs, the gap between civilians and the military has widened. Having an all-volunteer force looking at the military service as a profession, rather than a need to be fulfilled for periods of war, the US military has become a deeply entrenched and often isolated subset of society. The military has developed its own laws, norms, language, values and interests. However, service members come from every corner of our country, represent every socio-economic demographic, all races and religions. If we’re to analyze social issues within this institution, then we must remember that the institution is a reflection of our greater society. By depicting the issue of suicide amongst the military as a unique and tragic aspect of its culture through the military suicide epidemic frame, to be subsequently dealt with within the confines of its sub-cultural boundaries, then we fail to conduct social discourse of an issue that affects us all. 

“The Miles We Walked”

The miles we walked,
Through muck and mire,
In times of laughter and the dire.

Buckles of simple metal, now of plastic, clang our marching beat,
Straps of oxhide, now of synthetic, cut into our necks,
Bare, leather, canvas, now suede boots, step onward,
Feet red, hot and tender to the slightest touch.

Native or foreign soil, our obstacle,
Rock, grass, beach, brush, paddy, swamp, sand, our immediate foes,
The chaotic boredom, the communal loneliness our battle-ground.

17, 18, 19, 20,
Only beginnings of centuries to them,
All the same to us.

Boundaries expanded, ideologies combated, politicians gloated, protestors bantered,
We stood for none, but strangely for all.

Our shared pain of those miles, our pride,
The filth of that muck, our honor,
Our connection shall ever be ours and ours alone.

The miles we will walk,
Through muck and mire,
In times of laughter and most certainly the dire.

Homefront Battle

The screams brewed inside of me,
The screams boiled,
The screams built pressure I could not withstand,
The screams became too unbearable to contain,
The screams finally came.

The screams gnarled and scorched my throat,
The screams brought blood and rage pumping through my veins, engorging my chest, neck and face,
The screams blinded me from my own humanity as I fell into an animal like being,
The screams would finally exhaust me,
The screams castrated me.

The screams penetrated every cell, split and multiplied,
The screams, an overwhelming cancer.

The screams opened wounds I did not inflict in you, but certainly awakened,
The screams at first frightened you, then enraged you,
The screams made me the perpetrator of all your fear and weakness,
The screams doubled as you fought against them.

The screams became muted and made you deaf to me,
The screams were of a foreign tongue that your mastered ear could not hear,
The screams were made hollow as you buckled to their power,
The screams were changed, morphed into another meaning,
The screams were detoured and deflected,
The screams you couldn’t control.

The screams turned you against me,
The screams pitted us as foes,
The screams destroyed what was once us.

I’m sorry the screams distorted your view of me,
I’m sorry for what they did,
I’m sorry for what they still may do,
I’m sorry they divided us.

The screams, those goddamn screams.

Is Youth Wasted on the Young?

The opening of this article may seem a bit cathartic, but there’s a “big picture” intent. I recently turned 30 years old and came down to the reality, whether it’s true or conjured in my mind, that I’m no longer a young man. My perception of 30 years old meant that one would be well into a career, maybe married, own a home and a kid or two running around. Depending on your perception of whether it’s good or bad, none of things have occurred yet in my life. While coming to acceptance that my 20’s are behind me, I started to take a look at the statistics of service members to get a better look at the demographics of our military. It’s become an accepted notion in our society that young people fight wars. This is certainly not unique in our culture. Looking through recorded history the rank and file of a nation’s military had always been composed of young people. However, accepted notions and their meaning can, over time, become lost amongst a people. Let’s take a look at the facts.

When looking at Department of Defense statistics, anywhere between 68% and 74% of today’s service members are 30 years old or younger, depending on the exact branch of the military. To be eligible to go onto active duty, a person must be at least 18 years old or older, though they may complete initial entry training at 17 with permission from their guardians. In 2001 the average age of a US Military service member was between 19.6 and 21.9 years old. So, suffice it to say, the vast majority of people in uniform today joined and have been serving since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and then in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom. If you’re not aware of the reality of combat operations in either theater, the battles broadcasted on television are being fought by people who aren’t even old enough to get a break on their car insurance, which is 25 years old.

Young privates on the ground typically are from 19-23 years old, depending on what age they joined. Sergeants can range anywhere from 22-32 years old. Their platoon leaders, lieutenants, are anywhere between 23 and 27 years old, since many of them joined right after college. Even the Company Commanders, Captains, range from 28-32 years old. Due to the nature of Iraq and Afghanistan fighting, battles are typically conducted at the squad to company level. The idea of generals looking at maps with large arrows pointing this way and that can’t be found. Critical decisions are being made by young people, people that when the battle is done, like to go back to camp and unwind by playing Xbox 360.

Now that we can look at the figures to have a more academic understanding that young people are doing this work, which isn’t too unique to warfare, let’s take a look at the nature of the past 10 years of war that our country has witnessed. Unlike other long term wars our country has been in, Iraq and Afghanistan have been unique due to the fact that there hasn’t been a draft. Two wars, both lasting over 8 years have been handled by those on Active Duty, the National Guard and Reserve forces. A 2010 report indicated there were just over 1.4 million people serving on active duty with 840,000 or so in some type of reserve component. The US population is a little over 311 million people, so about .8% of our population is serving in our military. A service member, depending on their branch, will spend anywhere from 6-12 months on a deployment overseas, with the vast majority in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Their dwell time, or time back in the US between deployments, can be anywhere from 9-15 months. To make things simple in the minds of service members, they accept the fact that on average they will spend a year in a combat zone and a year at home.

When looking at these figures one can now see that our military is composed of very young people spending half or more of their 20’s fighting. We realize that there’s a propensity for older generations to critique the younger ones. I think we’ve all heard, no matter what your age, the sentence “Well, back in my day…” Putting your personal views and politics aside, we must realize that there are young people out there doing extraordinary things within the ranks of the military. Their sacrifice goes beyond just enduring the hardships of combat. They sacrifice living a carefree and exploratory life that many people in their 20’s enjoy. Some may put off dating, marriage or school until they’re able to be in more stable times. Their families and friends endure long periods of stress and anxiety by their absence, which does have an effect on the service member themselves.

Having close friends who still continue to serve, many of whom haven’t reached the milestone of 30 years old like I have, may not be aware of the talent, dedication and toughness they demonstrate. These are tools that will serve them well in life. Age and along with it reflection will come to them eventually and when they piece together their personal story, I hope they’ll realize that their youth was
certainly not wasted.

Why

I need Tim, Derek and Joe.
I need 2nd Platoon, Bandit Troop, all the Screaming Eagles.
They were my blood that brought life pumping through my veins.
Pride, motivation in a uniform was not donned by clichés, but by the flesh and sweat of others.

They were the flag on my right shoulder, my family, my security, my country.
Its too big, too vast, too diverse to fight for as a whole.

Mortars, rockets, bombs, snipers, heat, dust were endured.
No sex, no beer, no comfort, no escape were provided.
Loneliness, anxiety, fear, rage, frustration, true friendship were found.

Not for the East or West Coast and all in between.
Not for promotions or praise.
Not for the occasional free drink.

I just want my brothers, they make me feel human again.

Transforming

You call him son,
You call him hero.

To him he’s neither,
Your son is not of the old mold, but an altered, unfamiliar one.

You call him son,
You call him hero.
You cheer and praise his deeds, like parents clapping to an infant to rouse a cheerful reaction from it.
The parades and waving flags comfort you.

A celebration of his violent profession unnerves him.
He understands now, by his time in the desert, that if they knew the true story of his profession, they’d be more reserved.

They call him precious,
They reward his sacrifice.
His medals validate his accomplishments in your eyes.
The glittering, clanging dance on his chest calms them, like a lullaby to a toddler.

He remains restless, for vanity can’t and shouldn’t thrive,
When something has been birthed from the ugliest of circumstances.