Originally published 05/25/2012 at http://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com/blog.html

Memorial Day approaches, close to a decade after I became alarmed about what would happen to the new generations of war veterans, worried that their understandable, profoundly human reactions to war would be marginalized as "mental illness" and that that would distance the rest of the country -- the 93% of us who have never even served in the military -- from them and their suffering, it only gets worse.

In our intensely psychiatrized nation, far too much of which rests on the manual of psychiatric diagnosis in which every human feeling is called a mental disorder, it has been far too easy for civilians to think one of three things: (l) I don't want to try to help veterans, because it's too upsetting to think about what they must go through; (2) I'd love to help, but they're mentally ill with Post-traumatic Stress Disorders and other diseases, so they'd probably attack me; or (3) I'd love to help, but they're mentally ill, and I'm not a therapist, so I wouldn't know what to do and might even make them worse.

Combine those attitudes and beliefs with many veterans' soul-destroying isolation, because they are afraid if they talk about what they have been through, we will think they are mentally ill or we will judge them harshly or we just won't understand or what we hear will upset us, and it's no wonder that civilians often assume they have nothing in common with war veterans. That last assumption is something we found in the Harvard Kennedy School study we did, in which we implemented The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project, simply having an untrained civilian who is not a therapist listen -- with respect, without judgment or even comments or questions, in nearly total silence but with total concentration -- to whatever a veteran from any war wants to describe of their experiences at war, trying to come home, or both. In that study and in other places, after the listening sessions are finished, the veterans have without fail described their session in positive terms, saying it was unique, that no one had ever given them the chance to say whatever they wanted to say and just listened, and the civilians have often expressed surprise that, in the words of one, "I discovered we have so much in common." That statement I believe reveals the widespread attitude among civilians that, "If you're a veteran, you and I probably have absolutely nothing in common." What do they learn when they listen to a veteran? They learn about their common humanity. They learn that, although they might assume they could never understand or connect with someone who is labeled mentally ill, if you listen to a person who is suffering, free from the distancing that labels and jargon create, then instead of thinking "a mentally ill person," you think "a person who feels intense grief, loss, terror, shame, innocence destroyed, moral anguish, spiritual confusion and crisis." Those, any of us can understand.

At the conference called "A Better Welcome Home" that we held last November hosted by The Ash Center for Democratic Governance of Harvard Kennedy School, we presented nearly 30 ways of helping veterans heal without either pathologizing them as mentally ill or -- the almost invariable outcome of such pathologizing -- using high-risk approaches such as psychiatric drugs which can occasionally help at least somewhat but are far too often given to veterans in multiples of three kinds at a time and are probably at least partly responsible for the ongoing rates of suffering reported by the military at the VA. These ranged from physical exercise to meditation to working in the arts or community projects to the use of service dogs to the listening sessions and more. The 5-minute videos of each of these approaches can be found at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL51E99E866B9D735E, and each is accompanied by contact information for the speaker and a list of several ways that any civilian can help with that approach.

One of the conference videos is of Wick Sloane and Kathleen O'Neill, who created a program for the 450 veterans who are students at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), providing a rich array of kinds of support and help. Sloane often writes for Inside Higher Education, an online publication where he reported last November 11 that, in contrast to the numbers at BHCC, the nation's 31 most selective colleges combined had only 232 undergraduate veterans (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/11/11/essay-annual-count-vetera...). He placed an asterisk after 232 to indicate that that is an approximate number, because some of those institutions do not even keep track of the numbers of students who are veterans. Of the 31, some have no veterans as undergraduates, and my alma mater, Harvard, went from 2 in the fall of 2010 to ... 2 in the fall of 2011. This is inexcusable, because colleges should be actively recruiting veterans, not waiting to see if any bother to apply.

That is just one illustration of some official numbers that show the widespread failure to take action to help veterans. In every community, any civilian could offer to listen to a veteran's story, and if they want to read up a bit first, they can read Chapter 6 of my book and/or look at the second of the two nine-minute videos on the home page of this website. Any civilian can look at the videos on the Harvard Kennedy School website, pick two or three subjects that grab their interest, watch the videos, and use the contact information to get in touch and get involved.

An exciting, new program to involve hundreds of communities in truly helping veterans — and doing so in nonpathologizing, low-risk ways — is the Staff Sergeant Donnie D. Dixon Center for Military and Veteran Community Support. Director of this program, which is affiliated with Easter Seals, an organization with a long history of creating community connections for people who have been pathologized and cast out, is Colonel (Retired) David Sutherland. Colonel Sutherland retired from the Army earlier this month, and his last position before retiring was as Special Assistant in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, specializing in Warrior and Family Support. What this meant was that he headed a program that sent him and his staff constantly traveling around this country, finding out what was being offered to veterans in hundreds of communities and finding out what else is needed. In that work and in his new position, Commander Kim Mitchell is his tireless and compassionate assistant in the work that, in Colonel Sutherland's powerful words, is aimed to wipe out "the epidemic of disconnection" that so devastates our veterans.

Congressman Bob Filner has introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives H.R. 456, which would declare every Veterans Day a National Day of Listening to Veterans, when every civilian should listen with respect and without judgment to a veteran's story. Congressman Charles Rangel has signed on as a co-sponsor, and I hope that readers of this essay will contact their members of the House to urge them to become co-sponsors and bring the resolution to a vote and also to contact their Senators to urge them to introduce a similar resolution in the Senate. The same resolution could be passed in any state or by any city government as well.

I also hope, as I have urged here before, that every civilian who reads this essay will on Memorial Day or some other day offer to listen to the story of a veteran. All across this country, for the sake of our veterans and for the health of the nation, we need to ensure that every community where a veteran lives makes sure that veterans will know that in their own community, there are six people or three or even one who have cared enough to listen, who have offered to connect. I am a strong supporter of jobs, education, and healthcare for veterans, but in the absence of understanding and connection in the community, too much of the spirit-killing isolation will continue.

©copyright 2012 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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