For many years now, my family — composed of many veterans from the Navy, Army and Marines — has instilled in me a reverence for the military, a sense of respect for those who risk their lives for my safety. And for many years now, I have returned the favor with simple gestures, like thanking people in uniform when I see them in the grocery store.
I have become increasingly aware of the strange relationship between Americans and those who serve. Sure, many wave a flag on their front porches in support of the troops abroad. I bet they even cried when watching Saving Private Ryan. But would they give a few bucks to a homeless veteran on the street? Probably not. Would they ever serve in the military themselves? Absolutely not.
Admittedly, I am a part of this problem. Whether they want to believe it or not, many Americans — and the policymakers above them — may readily vocalize their support for those who serve, but in reality, they fall drastically short in providing veterans with the help they deserve.
This is especially true concerning mental health. Last month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report on the status of military veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan era. Underlined in their chief findings was the fact that there is a “substantial unmet need for mental health services” among the veterans surveyed.
To be more specific, roughly half of veterans feel they aren’t getting the help they need. That means roughly half of those who suffer are not being supported by the very people for whom they risked their lives. This a problem, and it must be fixed now.
To tackle this issue, we must first address the stigma associated with mental illness. As alluded to before, many people romanticize the image of the soldier, but reject what they become after serving. Our society says that soldiers aren’t supposed to be needy; they are supposed to satisfy our needs.
On the bright side, common conditions like Post Traumatic Stress — a case of extreme anxiety triggered by the trauma of combat — have become increasingly legitimized as mental illnesses over the years. PTS was not a commonly used term before the 1980s, but it certainly existed. Once diagnosed as “shell shock,” an understatement of the condition’s severity, PTS has alternated titles — “combat exhaustion,” “stress response syndrome” — until the term “post traumatic stress disorder” stuck. Recently, many doctors and experts have dropped the term “disorder” from the name due to its negative connotation.
Changing the name of the condition does not address the deeper issue. Destigmatizing mental health is certainly a priority, but it is not enough to simply understand that PTS is a problem. The reality is that efforts by the government to support veterans have been largely ineffective.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has previously been accused of failing to provide health services to which many veterans are guaranteed. The mental health section of the organization’s website reads: “Because suicide prevention is the Department of Veterans Affairs’ top clinical priority, it is important for former service members to know there is some place they can turn if they are facing a mental health emergency.”
If mental health is such a priority, then why do nearly half of veterans feel they aren’t getting the support they need? The key word in the quote above is “emergency”: Many veterans cannot find assistance unless there is an absolute crisis, and even then, there is a high chance of facing a closed door.
To address this problem, President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month that intends to expand the VA’s mental health services department to reach new veterans, prioritizing suicide prevention in particular. This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully the VA will streamline its system to satisfy the increased number of clients.
But there is some support available to those who look for it. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to intern at the Veterans Legal Institute, a law firm co-founded by its president, Antoinette Balta and USC Gould School of Law professor Dwight Stirling. The firm, which offers pro bono services to thousands of struggling veterans in Southern California, is a shining example of the progress that can be made if veterans’ voices are heard.
During my internship, I experienced the miserable atmosphere of the VA hospital. But I also watched many desperate veterans come through the door of a small law office and walk out with a new sense of hope, and a new life ahead of them. Throughout my entire experience, I was uplifted by the genuine care and support my coworkers gave to clients in need.
It is time that more of us start caring as well. It is time that more of us stop blindly waving our flags and start listening to the cries for help from the low-income, homeless and mentally ill veterans in our communities. It is time that more of us serve those who serve us.
Ryan Fawwaz is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.