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Don't skimp on mental health care for veterans

FamilyAfghanistanIraqU.S. Department of Defense

Waging peace may be more expensive than waging war. That is a shocking statement when one considers the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may be an unacceptable proposition to Americans weary of our longest war and besieged by economic crises that seem to multiply weekly.

The president has reduced the number of military personnel in Iraq, and he has vowed to remove all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. One of the few issues that our representatives in government might agree upon is the need for expanded cost-saving measures, both domestically with efforts such as base realignment and in Afghanistan with planned reductions in funding for Afghan security forces. Few Americans would disagree.

One cost-saving measure that we cannot afford, however, is a reduction in funding for mental health care for soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors — and their families. On the contrary, such services are not meeting current needs and must be expanded and improved.

Military personnel have been fighting in these wars and returning home — many repeating this process more than once — for almost a decade. Many have seen friends blown to pieces by roadside bombs; others have taken lives. Whether their response to such stress is immediate and acute (suffering from various forms of mental illness) or delayed (post-traumatic stress disorder), many men and women who have been to these wars need mental health care. And because they are fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, their families also need the support of mental health care professionals.

The military has improved efforts in recent years to identify and treat mental illness, but more work is needed. A recent Defense Department report indicates that many military personnel are communicating with loved ones about their mental illness; approximately one-third of those who committed suicide last year told someone about their intentions to do so. But how many nonsuicidal military personnel have spoken to anyone about their anxiety or depression? How many have sought treatment for sleep or eating disorders? We may never know, but we can make efforts to increase the number of military personnel seeking treatment. More importantly, perhaps, we can make an effort to improve treatment.

Both inside and outside the military, there remains a stigma attached to mental illness. Seeking treatment for depression may jeopardize one's standing with friends and family — or even one's job. We need to work to remove that stigma. Otherwise, we risk consigning these men and women to lives of quiet desperation — quiet, but viciously destructive.

I recently had the misfortune of seeing a veteran of the war in Afghanistan walk to the site of his suicide. He passed by me early in the afternoon in a Maryland state park where I was working, and I didn't realize until I saw his lifeless body later that day that I had seen him earlier. His wife told me that he was a veteran, that he suffered from PTSD and other mental illnesses, and that he had talked with her about taking his life. He chose a tranquil spot in the park, where water laps against the shore and a breeze always seems to blow. In doing so, he may have been seeking some respite from the trauma he had suffered. He left behind a wife and a baby.

With vigilance and love, as well as more funding for mental health care, we can prevent deaths like his. Whether you have supported the last decade's wars or vehemently opposed them, you must agree that military personnel and their families deserve proper care.

With so many military bases in and around Maryland, we are in a unique position to lead the nation toward better mental health care for the men and women of the military and their families. Everyone has problems; we may be strapped for cash, seeking employment or overwhelmed by our own personal disasters. But I believe that the people of Maryland are generous, caring and intelligent. We are ready to spend what we must to care for these men and women, whether in dollars or volunteer hours.

To protect those who have served, once they return home, is to wage peace. Not to do so would in the end prove far too costly to our community. Surely, peace is more valuable than war.

Christian Zawojski, a resident of North East, grew up in a military family and works as a park ranger. His email is clzawojski@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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