Operation Healthy Reunions

By Bill Becker

Bill BeckerDecember 30, 2005—I have in front of me an appeal from the National Mental Health Association, asking for support for Operation Healthy Reunions, a “new, critical program” that will “aid soldiers in a successful transition and reintegration into their families.”

The appeal is not written by an official of the NMHA, but by Captain Vanessa McMillan White, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and lead officer of a 4-member U.S. Army Combat Stress Control Team. The team is based near An Najaf, Iraq, and offers “interventions to assist soldiers in handling the complexities of war,” including individual counseling and stress and anger management. Another LCSW and two mental health specialists make up the rest of the team. From the photograph accompanying the appeal they appear to be a competent and deeply caring crew.“

Unfortunately, we are very busy,” writes CPT White.

“The stress of living in a combat zone for months on end can be overwhelming. ... What’s more, returning to America can be as hard on soldiers as being away. Divorce rates for military families have skyrocketed in recent years. More than a third of returning soldiers report mental disorders. Incidents related to post-traumatic stress disorder have resulted in violence and tragedy. You’ve seen the headlines. And it’s only getting worse.”

The Combat Stress Control Team needs more assistance than the military provides, and Operation Healthy Reunions “will greatly fill the void” when they return to help soldiers stateside, writes Captain White.

My bet is that there is more to the story.

On December 2nd, an old friend of mine died. Straight out of boot camp in 1944, Walt was a sergeant in charge of a machine gun squad in the Philippines. He was on Okinawa for the mop-up, arguably as brutal as the initial Marine landing. He came back from the war without benefit of a Combat Stress Control Team, and like thousands of other combat veterans, he handled his psychological wounds alone. He didn’t talk about the war much, and when he did, he never mentioned the horror of it all. If he said anything, it was about camaraderie, with an occasional story about a close call thrown in. But a few years ago, after Alzheimers began to make its mark, he did say how awful it was—but just barely. As a Kansas farm boy, he said, he wasn’t raised to bayonet wounded Japanese soldiers as his squad raced forward to its objective. No one should ever have to do that kind of thing, he murmured.

Walt had a benefit that our young soldiers in Iraq don’t have, though: he knew that he was fighting a war that absolutely had to be fought. Whatever the failings of European and American statesmen — failings that virtually guaranteed that the first World War would be followed by a second one — the Nazis and Imperial Japan had to be defeated. I suspect that one source of trauma for our soldiers in Iraq today is their increasing awareness that this war was not necessary—that they were sent to kill Iraqis on the basis of lies. I would be surprised if our young soldiers, raised on the ideals of fair play and honesty, and sensing that they were sent to Iraq under false pretenses, can casually dismiss an Iraqi child blown to bits as mere “collateral damage.” To be consciously aware of the deception is bad enough; for soldiers in denial, it must be far worse. This is not a problem that Captain White could mention in her appeal, of course.

Many readers of this page will accuse me of trading on Operation Healthy Reunions to make a political point. Indeed—their suffering is inherently political. Let me close with film maker Michael Moore’s closing comments in Fahrenheit 9/11:

“I’ve always been amazed that the very people forced to live in the worst parts of town, go to the worst schools, and who have it the hardest are always the first to step up and defend that very system. They serve so that we don’t have to. They offer to give up their lives so we can be free. It is remarkable, their gift to us. And all they ask for in return is that we never send them into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary. Will they ever trust us again?”

I have yet to read or hear a more eloquent expression of caring for our soldiers. Go to nmha.org to learn more about Operation Healthy Reunions.

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