You just can’t stop the images from flooding into your mind. The death and destruction. The faces of fallen friends. The faces of the women and children killed. You see danger behind every tree or wall or fence. The fear grows with every step you take. Your eyes are glancing from side to side looking for the danger. You are on edge.
That isn’t taking place in Iraq or Afghanistan or even Vietnam. It is happening as you take a walk down your street in your hometown. Something triggered all of the memories of those conflicts. Sometimes it isn’t even war that brings these memories. It is natural disasters or plane crashes or even boating accidents you worked. Something that you have witnessed while serving is suddenly flooding back into your conscious memory.
Even after you realize you are home, the dread lingers. The guilt of having survived while others were not so lucky. The thought of your friends killed while you lived haunt you. Survivor’s guilt is what they call it. It is real. It is affecting everything you do. It affects your ability to sleep or work or even laugh. It affects every fiber of your existence.
You begin to feel like “damaged goods”. You begin to feel like you aren’t worthy of living anymore. You begin to feel like your family don’t want you around in “polite” company anymore. You begin to shrink from society and shelter yourself away from others, including those who love you. You never fully realize what is going on. You think that somehow you are the cause of the problem.
Far too many times, you settle these internal conflicts with what you believe to be the only answer that is best for all. You commit suicide.
That is just a very brief and incomplete example of what is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD affects millions of our veterans everyday. It is something that haunts memories and lives. There are many ways veterans cope with PTSD and most of them are self-destructive. Many will seek help from the VA. Others too often turn to alcohol or drugs. Anything that will “make me feel better” at least for a while. But, they don’t help, they make things worse.
According to statistics, 22 veterans commit suicide every day! That is 154 veteran suicides every week or 8000 per year. Why, you ask, don’t these troubled souls get the help they need? That is a fair question. Many don’t get the help they need because they don’t fully understand what is happening to them. Many don’t seek help because they think it is admitting a flaw in their personality. Real vets don’t feel this way, they think.
Most try to cope with PTSD by themselves. As a result, they don’t seek the help they need, and eventually push their families aside. Especially when their family tries to convince them to seek help. Psychological problems are difficult for anyone to accept. People with psychological problems have been shunned by society for hundreds of years. Besides, they don’t need help because they are “heroes”! Heroes don’t need to be helped. They are above all of these problems.
How do they know they are heroes? Because every single day, someone is calling them a hero. Every single day they hear the term used like “we want to thank all of our heroes for their service”. In their own minds they start to become mythical. They buy into the hype and never get the help they need.
That is how a simple word “hero” can affect people. I know that everyone who uses the word thinks they are paying a compliment to those who have served. They have risked everything in defense of our country. They deserve the compliment. But, sometimes, the simple word “hero” actually de-humanizes veterans. It puts them on a pedestal that they are afraid of falling off. They start to believe that if they seek help, they will no longer be a “hero”. Heroes don’t have flaws. They suck it up and move on.
We need to see our veterans for what they really are. They are humans who served our country in some of the most god-awfull circumstances. They have seen things that most people will never see. They have lost some of their friends. They have seen carnage we don’t want anyone to see. It will affect them! It will change them! It will haunt them!
When people start using words like “hero” to describe our veterans, they don’t think about what that may mean. They don’t understand that it can taken an excuse to “thank you” and then forget you. No one means to be like that. No one means to forget veterans. But, all too often it happens.
I know very few veterans who need hero-worship. We need respect. We need jobs. We need to take care of our families when we finally hang up the uniform. We simply need to be a “normal” part of society. What we do not need is to be called a “hero” and then forgotten.