November 11th is Veterans Day, a day that means different things to different people. For many it is a day to remember loved ones who served, for some it is a time to remember those we served with. I’m a veteran; I served as a B-52 bombardier and did a tour in the Vietnam theater in 1974-75. While I didn’t lose any friends during my tour, I lost friends in two different air training crashes that happened just 6 months apart. You grow close to fellow crew members and their families and it’s a deeply felt loss when they are taken from you. Each veteran who faces battle is changed in some way and often in ways that only those who have had similar experiences can understand. While I felt a loss in losing my friends, I’m convinced that it was different than the loss that was felt by a young Marine I knew and talked with 5 years ago.
This young man fought in the middle east and was part of some of the fiercest fighting in that theater. He lost good friends who were fighting with him. He was wounded and witnessed horrible things. He was honorably discharged because of his injuries, and he suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that manifested itself in depression and suicidal thoughts. He lost still more fellow Marines who committed suicide, and he struggled with thoughts of following in their footsteps. It is these veterans who deserve our respect, and even more they deserve healthcare for the physical and mental problems they face.
War exacts a mighty price from those who do battle. While we have identified some of the more common war-related maladies, like PTSD and substance use disorders (SUDs), the impact of war on each warrior can be different and complicated. The age, race and social integration of those who fought in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf were different than those who fought in the more recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The fact remains that these returning veterans come back with mental and health problems and they need the healthcare their country promised them.
For instance, one in three veterans are diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Eighteen to 22 American veterans commit suicide daily and young veterans aged 18–44 are most at risk. Almost 50,000 veterans are homeless. These veterans need healthcare that recognizes their unique situation and needs.
For the 25 years that I’ve been involved with advocating for older Americans I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many veterans. Many of them see civilian doctors and they often say things like, “my doctor doesn’t understand me,” or “they send me to therapists or psychologists who don’t even know I’m a veteran.” I’ve moved quite a few times over my life and not once, has a doctor ever asked me if I was in the military. Recently I went to an audiologist, and she never asked me if I was a veteran. I know that your exposure to sound during your military service often has a big impact on your hearing. When I was in the Air Force, I was assigned to headquarters Strategic Air Command. My yearly physical included a hearing test. After the test the doctor, who had no knowledge of my prior assignment, said he could tell that I flew in B-52s because of the unique range of the minor hearing loss I suffered. He said that he often could tell which type of fighter aircraft a pilot had flown in. When I told my civilian audiologist this story, she said this level of specificity didn’t seem possible and never asked any follow-up questions concerning my military service and how that service might affect my hearing.
We need to do more to treat our veterans and the first step should be for doctors to recognize that to effectively treat a veteran they need to know that he/she is a veteran and also to understand how to best diagnose and treat veterans.
One side note, another theme I’ve heard is that this lack of understanding is far worse for female veterans. The number of women who serve in the military and the number who face combat has increased dramatically, yet the knowledge of how to treat their unique situation has remained stagnant. Our female veterans deserve healthcare that will effectively treat their particular physical and mental maladies.
So, what can we do? More and more veterans are treated by civilian doctors, especially since the new laws that have been passed. Given that fact, if you’re a veteran, tell every doctor you see about your military service. Don’t assume your family doctor will tell the specialist they refer you to that you’re a veteran . . . you tell them. If you’re caring for a veteran, make sure their doctors know. Also, don’t hesitate to talk with someone at the VA about your veteran benefits. There might be opportunities for expanded healthcare benefits of which you are not aware. Our country promised to take care of our veterans, and we need to speak out and tell those who govern us that we need to improve the healthcare for veterans.
It seems that every veteran who is recognized for their service and is called a hero quickly identifies their wounded and lost fellow warriors as the true heroes. Veterans are sometimes hesitant to call attention to themselves or even discuss the physical or mental battles they are fighting. We need to strive to help them – it’s one way we can truly thank them for their service.