Newly returned veterans coping with the residual trauma of wartime military service need the help of ordinary citizens in the region, and so do their families. This was the message Gen. Peter Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, gave to a packed public town hall Monday evening (May 9) hosted by the UW.
Chiarelli was visiting his native Seattle as part of a campaign by military brass to spark badly needed community conversations across the country, about how civilians can help veterans reintegrate into the American way of life they went overseas to defend.
A distinguished military graduate of Seattle University who holds a master's in public administration from the UW Evans School, Chiarelli has led military efforts to reduce high-risk behavior and suicide attempts among service personnel as well as to improve treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other psychic effects of wartime service. Last week (May 4) he received the Hero of Medicine award for his work.
Psychiatric and other brain disorders are on the rise in the military because wars today differ from those of the past, said Chiarelli. For one thing, the U.S. has been simultaneously fighting two of the longest wars in our history. Further, battle engagements in conflicts such as World War II used to be "on the front lines, and folks to the rear saw little action or danger," the general said, but now the fighting is "non-linear. Everyone is in danger, sees things, has occurrences." These days the average soldier's term of service inflicts stresses totaling the cumulative stress on "somebody living to age 80."
While the treatment of physical injuries has been "absolutely amazing," said Chiarelli, treatment for PTSD, brain injury, and TBI lags behind. "This is the Agent Orange of this conflict. The science of the brain is not mature."
Chiarelli said brain injuries can be especially problematic for the families of veterans. "It's one thing to come home with that visible wound. But if they come home looking just the same, but aren't," the transition is a huge challenge. Healing can happen if someone is treated immediately after a traumatic incident, he said. But because so much stigma surrounds mental health issues, "there's an average gap of 12 years between a PTSD incident and coming in for help."
For these and other reasons, veterans returning to civilian life need their community to reach out to them instead of waiting for them to make the connection, said Chiarelli. So "the best solutions are not from Washington, D.C. They're local." He added that in some areas there are hundreds of agencies set up to provide services, "but the problem is linking them together."
With community partnerships, results can be remarkable, Chiarelli said. For example, high-tech executive Mike Allen brought together Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the USO, and others to make a film that would help teach America about returning veterans and what they need: Homefront Heroes. Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox teamed up to develop an initiative not only to provide world-class clinical care for PTSD and TBI but also to bring veterans in for treatment and support their families through the process.
Zachary Fisher and later Arnold Fisher partnered with others to build Fisher Houses across the nation ("like Ronald McDonald houses, where families can stay with a wounded serviceman near his hospital," Chiarelli said). Chiarelli described how Ronald A. Katz fostered a partnership between UCLA Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center that resulted in a burn rehab project called Operation Mend, where vets horribly disfigured by burns from explosive devices are brought with their families to UCLA, paired with buddy families, and accompanied through their many return visits (the video is awe-inspiring).
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