Bringing Them Home – How Every Citizen Can Help America’s Military Families

The suicide rate among veterans has reached a 27-year high, just one of the alarming facts about the effects of multiple deployments and unique stresses of combat conditions on Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers. According to a report issued by the Department of Defense in January 2009, substance abuse, marital problems and divorce are increasing among the returning service members, due to inadequate mental health screening or available treatment and a long-standing stigma attached to seeking help for psychological/emotional wounds. To make things worse, the housing crisis has hit military families right where they, quite literally, live. “In early 2008, foreclosure rates in military towns were increasing at four times the national average,” according to a report issued by the Center for American Progress.Military families face a daunting readjustment when soldiers come home, and social forces that are stressful for the rest of us are even more intense and destabilizing for them. While it is true that veterans are promised a range of benefits for themselves and their families – that 1% of the American population that sacrifices so much for the other 99% – the whole of society can do more to support the Veterans Administration charged with making good on those promises . “I think if every doctor’s waiting room had vets sitting in them, society would begin to understand what happens in war,” states Larry Winters, Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Four Winds Hospital in Katonah New York recently named to run their new Veteran Services Program, who is also a Vietnam combat veteran and author of The Making and Unmaking of a Marine ( “Instead we put our vets in their own hospitals and treat them separate from the rest of society.”A helicopter gunner during his service in Vietnam, Winters states that found that working with a civilian therapist to deal with his post-traumatic stress was important on many levels. “He represented society to me; much of the PTSD wound not healing has to do with society’s reaction to the returning soldier. Society holds the forgiveness, the compassion, understanding, and honor needed by the soldier to heal.”For those of us who never served in the military, any contribution we make to assist soldiers and their families is extremely meaningful to them, from the practical help we might offer through our professional expertise to the psychological healing effects of personal gestures made through neighborhood and community life. Public recognition and gratitude at ballgames and church services and concerts, anywhere people are gathered for a good time, and in specific, perhaps small choices, woven into our daily lives, can make large differences:We can give discounts at our place of business to military families who have returned to civilian life;The Veterans Administration promises no-down-payment mortgage financing to veterans, so realtors, bankers and home-sellers can voluntarily learn about the newly-streamlined VA housing loan process and its requirements and use their expertise to help veterans utilize this benefit. Even with the updated system that now speeds up loan-processing and reduces some other bureaucratic obstacles, our willingness to go that extra mile for a military family in this or any other line of work is an enormous contribution.Professional coaches and job recruiters could reach out to returning soldiers to donate their expertise through groups that teach networking and other employement-related skills. A January 2009 study issued by the Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans Association found that 57% of veterans were “unsure how to professionally network,” 72% “feel unprepared to negotiate salary and and benefits,” and 76% were “unable to effectively translate military skills” to potential employers.Attorneys and other professionals can reduce their fees and assist returning troops hit directly by the housing crisis, and offer to help veterans navigate the intricacies of home-buying through the Veterans Administration.The mental health community has a unique opportunity here to demonstrate support for the military and their families. Whether in private practice or outpatient clinic or counseling center, therapists who provide services to veterans and their families at reduced rates are giving an incalculable service not only to people who can benefit from quality professional treatment, but to society as a whole.Mental health and medical professionals can also help through education, using whatever channels we can tap into as professionals, to reduce the stigma that currently surrounds the need for psychological treatment in general and enlighten people about the far-reaching effects of post-traumatic stress in a person’s family, work and inner life. We can partner with organizations that assist military families and use our resources to shore up their efforts.If we can tap into a creative, holistic view of our lives, we could see that our own immediate concerns connect to a much bigger picture. What we do to help veterans and their families stabilize in their return to civilian life is a gesture of gratitude for their service but also a contribution to our common future. Society benefits when those wounded in our name find healing, recognition, and ample options for realizing their own potential. The opportunities to give are right in front of us, every day, in ways that bring our soldiers home in every sense of the word.

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