July 4th got me thinking about our military personnel and how many people in my family have served or are serving in the armed forces. My father, Sidney Sam Wallach, was an army private whose legs were shot up in World War II, and my mother worked at a local USO club. Her brothers also served in the army. Then my first husband, Alan David Stanger, was a Lieutenant Commander (dentist) in the Navy during Vietnam, attached to the Marine Corp. My husband today, John Walter Wadas, was a machinist mate second class petty officer and Navy wrestler. His brother, Gregg, was an Army Captain and his son, John James Wadas, is about to retire as an Airforce Chief Master Sergeant.
I spent the summer of 1969, the year a few lucky astronauts walked on the moon, at Camp Hansen Okinawa volunteering for the Red Cross while Father Gill, an EOD specialist, taught me about military life and the young people who served. For those of you who do not know, Camp Hansen was a Marine Corps facility which processed Marines to and from Vietnam. Everyone was on edge and the young men and women were courageous as they got their affairs in order (i.e. sending allotments home, waiting for babies to be born or caring for sick parents, etc.) And they were ready to fight for their country.
Then as if the world shook me like an earthquake, I received a phone call from a military family asking for help. Truth is I don’t get many phone calls from military families as usually there are great VA resources and while I have taken specialized training at SDSU School of Social Work in the area of working with the military, I do not get many calls in that arena.
The wife of the family, a navy officer, was at her wits end and oh so worried about her husband, a retired marine. Their marriage was in shambles, their children were scared and sad. There was something in her voice that said to me, I must help this family and thank her for her service.
Always an avid researcher, I dove into learning about some of the common mental and physical issues veterans face from a career serving and fighting for their country. In addition to alcoholism and other drug abuse a common struggle amongst veterans, I learned, 1 out of every 3 veterans experience PTSD. When you are in the military, you may see combat. You may have been on missions that exposed you to horrible and life-threatening experiences. These types of events can lead to PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website, the number of Veterans with PTSD varies by service era:
- Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF):About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.
- Gulf War (Desert Storm):About 12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans (or 12%) have PTSD in a given year.
- Vietnam War:About 15 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans (or 15%) were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (or 30%) of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
Truthfully, PTSD is not a “disorder.” Perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder should be renamed to “damage.” Because PTSD results “from a normal and predictable reaction to the horrors of war, the heart and soul’s reaction to the unthinkable destruction of brick and mortar and life and limb,” writes John Ketwig for the Roanoke Times.
Ketwig’s piece also looks at growing numbers of suicide amongst veterans. According to his piece, the risk of suicide is highest for Vietnam veterans, even though the Veterans Health Administration focuses mainly on the risk of younger veterans and suicide. Still, statistics show that the suicide rate for elderly veterans is higher than that of non-veterans of the same age, reports NPR.
The VA National Suicide Data Report for 2005 to 2016, which came out in September 2018, highlights an alarming rise in suicides among veterans:
- Ages 18 to 34 — 45 per 100,000 veterans
- Younger veterans have the highest rate of suicide among veterans, but those 55 and older still represent the largest numberof suicides.
- For veterans age 55 to 74 years old, the rate of suicide is 26 per 100,000, while nationally, the suicide rate in the same age group is 17.4 per 100,000. The rate ticks up even higher for veterans over 85 years old.
As I poured over this data, I continued to work with the family that contacted to me to further understand the issues they faced. While doing a family history (a bio-psycho-social examination of one’s family tree), I learned that this family experienced both verbal and physical abuse as children and joined the military as a way of escaping a dysfunctional home life and to serve our country. To their credit and determination, they have been exemplary service personnel – military public information officer while the other a combat photographer and journalist. I could only imagine what they have experienced that turned their lives to worry and fear of constant relapses and tortured thoughts.
In working with them, I learned about the magnificence of VFW Posts and Triple Threat Groups. Personally, I knew how helpful the VFW was in Florida to my husband John’s brother, Greg, a stroke survivor. A member of the VFW visited his brother every week, took him out shopping, etc. but I never realized the breadth and depth of the VFW. In San Diego, there are about 28 posts that are all run voluntarily with a District Head. They provide a place to go, find camaraderie, mental health services, job fairs, etc. and all of this is run by dedicated volunteers working to help one another.
I discovered Triple Threat Groups (Combat, Substance Abuse and PTSD) are specially designed for combat veterans and for new breed combat veterans (Iraqi and Afghanistan). I learned my alma mater and former employer, SDSU, even had them on their resource page alongside resources for AA, NA, Celebrate Recovery, Women in Sobriety, amongst others.
And in our behavioral health care field now that Tricare has extended service, there are many centers which qualify for treating combat veterans and military personnel through this insurance. As always, when working with a military family just like working with any family, I make sure due diligence is done when giving families three centers to choose from. For those who specialize in working with military families, make sure they are equipped to handle the special needs of this population, have clinical staff trained in this area and are robust in treatment modalities (from talk to experiential) and able to connect with good aftercare options.
Over the holiday I was able to talk with many men and women who selflessly gave themselves as combat truck drivers, firefighters, officers and enlisted men and women. I was awed by their lives and their commitment. While I caught a brief glimpse while helping this particular military family, I realized how widespread these issues are and how often we overlook them.
In closing, I want to thank the military men and women past and present for their service and the thousands of behavioral health practitioners, doctors, psychologists, social workers, counselors and volunteers who dedicate their professional lives to them. If you know of a military family who needs help, be sure and reach out.