Military veterans are still not getting the help they need to face the challenges of returning home from active duty, a panel of veterans, military spouses and therapists said during a discussion Thursday at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey.
The talk, attended by more than 100 people, was part of the ongoing Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ multidisciplinary exhibition “Home Front,” which addresses U.S military efforts from the perspective of civilian life.
The speakers described the arduous process of recovery from the traumas of battle and abuses suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers, a process that they said the U.S. military may not be equipped to handle.
“Bureaucracy is not the answer,” said retired Navy SEAL Pete Scobell. “Nonprofits have done much more for veterans in this country than the Veterans Administration has.”
Scobell said he found himself between tours of duty in a parking lot, wondering where he was and how he had gotten there. That was when he realized he had “cognitive deficits” due to traumatic brain injuries suffered on the battlefield.
“TBI is fixable, but you have take responsibility for yourself,” he said. “I read five or six books on brain function. Seeking out those answers was healing in itself.”
Scobell teaches skiing in Colorado and participates in recreational therapy programs, such as Higher Ground, a Wood River Valley based adaptive sports program.
Gulf War veteran Trina McDonald shared her story of enduring repeated attacks of drugging and sexual abuse by fellow soldiers, traumas that led her to attempt suicide three times.
“I almost didn’t make it,” said McDonald, who now works as a therapist and speaks about the phenomenon of sexual trauma on men and women in the U.S. military. She is featured in “The Invisible War,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about unreported sexual abuse in the U.S. military.
“I was so broken [after returning from military duty]. I really didn’t know how to take care of myself. It took having friends who came in and scooped me up,” she said.
McDonald returned from duty in 1990, but did not get medical help in her recovery until 2005, evidence she said of the gaps in care that exist for soldiers who need help. She said as many as 20,000 cases of sexual trauma go unreported each year in the U.S. military, primarily because of inertia within the military chain of command.
“They [the U.S. government] should take the reporting [of abuse] process out of the military chain of command and into the civilian court system,” she said.
“I had been ignorant of this,” said Lt. Col. Tony D. Forbes, a special assistant to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Office of Warrior and Family Support. Forbes said the Department of Defense is just beginning to respond to the issue of military sexual trauma.
“I apologize, but we are still trying to figure this out,” he said. “We are going to get more direction from the Department of Defense.”
Forbes said the lack of successful prosecution is a “huge part” of the problem.
“Reports of abuse are going up, which is a good thing,” he said.
Forbes said there is a “huge disconnect” at the highest levels in Washington, D.C., between military staff who have seen combat (including himself) and those who have not.
“What calmed me down was volunteering,” he said. “I got to work at 3:30 a.m. so I could be finished at 12:30 and go to work at homeless shelters in the D.C. area. That is how I wound up in my new job.”
Ketchum therapist Ellen Tracy has volunteered for five years for Higher Ground, working closely with female veterans and the wives of wounded warriors.
“I often hear about the surreality of returning to home and not fitting in,” Tracy said. “The military has orders and is regimented. At home things can be a little chaotic. They [female veterans] are dealing with men in the military who are not very trusting of the mental health system.”
Wives of fallen soldiers fare little better, said Christina Valentine, the founder of All in All, which serves families of those who lost their lives in the U.S. Special Forces community.
After Valentine’s husband, Navy SEAL Thomas J. Valentine, died in combat, she fell into despair.
“There was no one to turn to,” Valentine said. “No one to tell I didn’t want to get out of bed, to mow the lawn, to feed the children. We [the families of soldiers] suffer from secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. Our children suffer from it.”
Retired SEAL Scobell said veterans returning from combat often bring home harrowing tales of their experiences, but that they should nevertheless be seen as assets to their communities.
“We are all cracked, but we’re not all broken,” he said. “These are the ones you’re going to want making decisions in your community. They’ve already shown that they are selfless.”
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org