BIDLACK: Our duty to America’s veterans

Author: Hal Bidlack - January 3, 2018 - Updated: January 3, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

One of the few issues that seem, at least on the surface, to unite Democrats and Republicans is the need, or more correctly the duty, to care for our veterans. From the aged warriors of the World War II era to the youthful veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is usually a common call to properly look after these valued men and women. But I worry that a coming public health crisis will split this consensus when it comes time to actually spend the dollars needed.

Previous wars had specific challenges for veterans. World War I, for example, saw the need to deal with exposure to poison gas. Viet Nam vets often deal with the effects of Agent Orange, with symptoms often not arising until years after exposure. And “modern” vets of Iraq in particular are finding exposure to burn pits, and the loathsome chemicals burned therein, seems to create a dangerous and lengthy health challenge.

But one condition that has affected Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Airmen throughout human history is what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. From the dawn of conflict between human societies, there has been psychological trauma. Survivors of traumatic events in previous wars have been called “shell shocked” or were said to be suffering from “battle fatigue.” Soldiers changed by their service and returning home from the Civil War were said to be suffering from “soldier’s heart.”  It seems quite possible that the two soldiers famously slapped by Gen. George Patton were not cowards, but rather were deep into the effects of PTSD.

In my own case, which is difficult to talk about publicly, after serving more than 25 years of active duty, I suffer from PTSD associated primarily with what I had to see and do in the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. And as with so many military personnel dealing with PTSD, I continue to work to overcome the sense of being “weak,” due to the diagnosis. The shame often associated with PTSD, as well as the guilt of having survived, make this condition particularly insidious. It is a daily struggle to not be embarrassed or guilty, but one I seek to not be ashamed of, hence these words.

I ache for the veterans of earlier wars who came home to no support network to help deal with their traumas, and I hope we can commit to helping all vets, for decades to come.

In our most recent conflicts, we are also often dealing with the implications of Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. With better body armor and remarkable battlefield medical treatment, wounded combatants who likely would have died in earlier wars now survive, but all too often with these trademark conditions.  Both TBI and PTSD can exist independently, but they appear to be force multipliers when found together. And multiple tours for so many of those serving have made things worse.

Vets coming home in the 21st Century are usually tested for PTSD and TBI, but too many slip through the cracks in the system. And far too many vets find getting a job to be very difficult. The same society that thanks us for our service also, all too often, sees vets as potential ticking time bombs due to PTSD, and therefore too risky to hire. The headline in the Jan. 2 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette, regarding the tragic death of a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy, read “Ambush shooter was lawyer, Iraq war vet.” That headline is certainly true, but it also likely feeds the narrative of dangerous vets.

And so I think our elected officials should begin doing something that is almost impossible to do in today’s politics – start planning for the needs of veterans in the next 40 to 50 years. The young men and women of today’s military will find their needs for VA services increasing as age complicates the challenges of PTSD, TBI and other wounds.

I ache for the veterans of earlier wars who came home to no support network to help deal with their traumas, and I hope we can commit to helping all vets, for decades to come. This should be a non-partisan issue. This should be an easy call, but I worry that it will not be. As Mr. Lincoln put it, we have an obligation as a nation, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Perhaps we can think about the meaning of these words, as they resonate in the decades to come.

When thanked for my own service, I reply, “It was my honor.” Because it was. And now all of us have the duty to care for those in need. That too, is an honor.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.