Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

Where Has All the Funding Gone for Suffering War Veterans?

Missing money and lack of social support for war veterans

Posted Jul 12, 2011

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©Copyright 2011 Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

Missing money and lack of social support for war veterans

If you are one of those Americans who rests easy, certain that somebody up there in government must be dealing with all those who have experienced the psychological carnage wrought by war, I hope you will read on.

It's major and deeply troubling news that the Government Accountability Office, often called the federal government's "watchdog," found that the Pentagon's Defense Centers of Excellence, set up to help vets with emotional devastation or with traumatic brain injury after the 2007 scandal about appallingly poor treatment at Walter Reed Army Hospital, is riddled with unexplained financial problems and an unclear mission. The GAO found itself unable to determine even what is happening at DCOE, and the DCOE spokespeople themselves acknowledged the problems.

A report published on [1] included this statement: "Because of unresolved concerns with the reliability of funding and obligations data provided by DOD (Department of Defense), we [the GAO] cannot confirm the accuracy of figures related to DCOE." It also included the remark that the GAO report "reproduces this disclaimer no fewer than five times."

This news comes close on the heels of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' order for the VA mental health system to undergo a complete overhaul because of its "shameful" workings and "egregious" delays. [2]

As I've pointed out here before, my essays about veterans that appear on my Psychology Today blog receive orders of magnitude fewer hits than my essays about any of the other varied subjects about which I post there. Many Americans believe that they support veterans by putting yellow ribbons on their car bumpers or saying, "Support the troops!" but their support goes no farther. Some cannot think what else to do. Some believe mistakenly that if they are not trained therapists, there is nothing else they should or can do. Some just don't like to think about anything as unpleasant as war experiences.

But as I discovered some years ago, and as a wealth of excellent psychological research has shown, some important steps in helping veterans begin to heal are taken by any civilian who is willing to listen to a veteran's story without judging, interpreting, or even asking much of anything except if the vet would like to talk. [3]

Consider this: People who describe themselves as experts about war trauma - which is usually wrongly pathologized as a mental illness called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder rather than as a common, ordinary, understandable, human response to war's horrors - often express bewilderment about why the signs of suffering often seem to appear some months or even years after the veteran returns home. During the interviews I have done with veterans from all American wars beginning with World War II, I repeatedly learned that those who have the most trouble are often those who have been the most isolated from close, loving relationships with nonjudgmental people. I am not here blaming anyone, certainly not with a broad brush the family members of veterans, who are often (though not always) doing the best they can to be caring and supportive in the face of what are often puzzling, distant, mistrustful, and sometimes violent behavior from the vet. Elsewhere [3] I describe in detail some of the reasons for these kinds of behavior. But the point at the moment is that veterans who struck me as the most isolated, judged, mocked, and rejected were the ones who seemed to have the most trouble moving even a step beyond their trauma.

Today I heard from Dr. Thomas Dikel about some careful research he conducted about war trauma. [4] He and his colleagues found that after the war trauma itself, the next most important predictor - and a strong one - of the continuation of emotional suffering was the absence of deeply caring interpersonal support. Sadly, this important finding, despite fitting well with the ample research showing the importance of social support - or what VA Vet Center (Salem,OR) head Dr. David Collier, a Viet Nam veteran himself and a psychologist, calls the importance of love - is too often ignored.

I hope that everyone who reads this essay will make a commitment to listening to the story of at least one listen without judging so that a healing connection has a chance to begin.



[3] Paula J. Caplan. (2011). When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (see especially Chapter 6 for simple guidelines about listening to a vet's story, and see also

[4] T.N. Dikel, B. Engdahl, & R.Eberly. PTSD in former prisoners of war: Prewar, wartime, and postwar factors. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol, 18, No, /, February 2005, pp, 69-77.

About the Author

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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