Humiliating the wounded warrior

The Baltimore Sun

No amount of money is going to fix the tragedy unfolding under public scrutiny at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It breaks one's heart to hear dignified young soldiers speak - their words sometimes faltering because of head injuries - about the humiliating treatment they have received in our veterans health care system.

Recently, in New England, one wounded soldier who had returned from Iraq committed suicide after being made to wait for outpatient mental health care. Obviously, his wait was too long.

Every wounded veteran represents a triangle of suffering with the soldier at the apex and immediate family, friends and the larger community forming the points at the base. When a U.S. soldier is injured, there is damage not only to him and his loved ones but to all of us.

How do we cure this situation? It won't be easy, and it will require us to appreciate the causes of this cruel and inhumane neglect of our wounded warriors.

Sadly, the ill treatment of injured soldiers is a tale with a long history. The public neglect of Vietnam veterans, for example, is well-known.

It is the genius of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles that he described our current situation more than 2,000 years ago. In his play Philoctetes, he addresses the condition of every wounded hero: How can traumatized soldiers be made whole again, after terrible events place them in painful and unpredictable circumstances, and our society either ignores or abandons them?

Philoctetes, the great friend of the deceased hero Hercules, is wounded by a sacred serpent sent by the goddess Hera, causing an incurable injury and unbearable suffering. Hera's purpose is to keep the Greeks from winning the Trojan War by using Hercules' magic bow, which had been given to Philoctetes by Hercules upon his deathbed.

Instead of being aided in his injury and pain by his fellow Greeks, Philoctetes is abandoned to the isolated Aegean island of Lemnos. No one listens to his wails of sorrow, which hide the fact that only the bow of Hercules, possessed by Philoctetes, can save the Greeks and end the Trojan War. After nine years of futile battle, the Greeks finally seek out the hero they abandoned on Lemnos in order to find their salvation. As Odysseus states, "Only his bow captures Troy." But it turns out in the story that the bow is worthless without the wounded hero. Only Philoctetes can shoot it to win the Trojan War.

As I heard the congressional testimony of our wounded soldiers, I envisioned a modern-day Philoctetes speaking to us. As healthy young men and women, they are glorified to fight on our behalf in Iraq. Once injured, they are thrown away by our leaders to the Lemnos of the VA system.

As citizens, we collude with this abandonment because not one of us wants to hear their trauma story. Like Philoctetes, they are hidden from view, made to suffer in silence and solitude.

In the case of Iraq, this abandonment began with the censoring of all images of our dead warriors coming home. This denied the country the chance to grieve the loss of our troops. Then, as the Walter Reed scandal has revealed, we neglected their pain and made them fight once again - except this time, they were fighting for the care and benefits they deserve, and the adversary was the government that sent them to war. Rarely does the medical system really reach out and support the family members of injured and deceased veterans.

The media share the blame for presenting to the public so little of what had befallen our wounded veterans (before the Walter Reed scandal was exposed by The Washington Post).

In the end, we all are responsible for our lack of willingness to confront the agony of our wounded troops. Every time a soldier was honored for bravery during public celebrations and political events, I shuddered because I feared that their courage was being exploited. Now we all see our culpability in an enormous story of betrayal.

Not unlike the Greeks in their response to Philoctetes, we as a nation have also tried to "steal" the bow of the wounded warrior. And just as the bow of the wounded Philoctetes was indispensable to the Greeks' war effort, we cannot win the Iraq war without our wounded warriors. Only by healing and listening to our injured troops will we be able to find some answers to a quagmire that is tearing our society apart.

These soldiers have much to teach us. Out of their traumatic experience will emerge revelations and disclosures as to the way we are conducting the war in Iraq. Society must acknowledge them not only for their sacrifices but also for their invaluable insights.

Injustice to the wounded cannot lead us to victory. Indeed, the opposite is true. Only compassion and love - translated into real healing for those who gave up so much - will help us maintain our dignity as a nation regardless of the outcome in Iraq.

Dr. Richard F. Mollica, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, is the author of "Healing Invisible Wounds." His e-mail is

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