Last Saturday, America honored its veterans with a holiday that beseeches us to remember our soldiers and the sacrifices they have made and continue to make for this country.
But our thoughts should not simply be about what these soldiers do or have done for us.
On Veterans Day, the Press & Dakotan published an article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is inflicting a larger number of soldiers than many people may realize. When some soldiers return from a tour of duty, they have trouble adjusting to their "normal" civilian lives, or they have difficulty processing their experiences in war.
This has contributed to a startling suicide rate among returning troops. South Dakota Secretary of Veteran Affairs Larry Zimmerman said that this state averages two military suicides per month. In September, the Veterans Administration in Washington reported that veterans were at a 22 percent higher risk of suicide than civilians.
As a nation, we must dedicate ourselves to dealing with soldiers struggling with PTSD. If we are, as it appears, to remain in an ongoing war on terror with no end in sight, then dealing effectively with the mental consequences that military experience may create must be a priority.
Frankly, America has been slow to recognize the existence and seriousness of mental health issues in general. Certainly, it's hard to place measurements on these conditions: They don't show up in X-rays or in blood work. Health insurance for years was reluctant to truly recognize mental illness as a legitimate health issue, and there are still people who place a stigma on the specter of mental health problems, in part because they may be unable to grasp what they have not personally experienced. As a result, some people who endure it may be reluctant to speak of it or even admit it to themselves.
However, this has gradually changed during the last 25 years, with a greater recognition of mental health issues developing. But a lot of work remains.
PTSD is not confined to military personnel; it can happen to anyone who has been subjected to a traumatic experience. A government study reported last year that 8 percent of all Americans suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. But for veterans, that number rises into the double digits, ranging up to 20 percent in some instances.
Still, it can be perplexing territory, not only for the general public but also for the victims of mental illness, who may not understand what they are enduring and may be ashamed or afraid of seeking help. In that sense, perhaps soldiers grappling with PTSD are really no different than civilians who are also dealing with depression or thoughts of suicide.
Our soldiers see things and endure things that many civilians cannot understand or imagine, and that makes the impact of PTSD even more profound — and more isolating.
America cannot look away from this issue. If we train men and women to fight for us and defend us, we owe it to them to offer any help any of them may need when they return home.