Sunday, November 5, 2017

Mental illness comes in many shapes

Bowe Bergdahl was an American soldier who deserted his unit in 2009.  He WAS a soldier because last week, a military judge demoted him to private and gave him a dishonorable discharge.

The sentencing lit up the Internet with resounding condemnation.  Everyone from amateur bloggers to our so-called president angrily roared over their disapproval of the sentencing.  "If the firing squad was out of the question, he should've at least been thrown in jail for the rest of his life," they all yelled and demanded.

If I hadn't read this opinion piece in Time magazine penned by a British military man (Andy Owen, captain in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army) a week before the ruling, I'd probably would've joined in the shock, disbelief, and outrage.  Captain Owen, however, forced me to look at what happened from another angle.

Captain Owen claims Bergdahl deserves our empathy.  Notice he didn't say Bergdahl deserves our understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, or any sort of action that would gloss over or lessen Bergdahl's betrayal of trust with his fellow soldiers.  His betrayal of trust has forever changed the lives of the soldiers injured while looking for him.  They won't forget and neither should we.

No, we cannot forget the three soldiers severely injured while looking for Bergdahl.  If you, the reader, are only vaguely familiar with the three soldiers, please take the time to read the link.  Get to know them.  They are representative of the sacrifices our soldiers make every day, every year, and have made since the founding of this country. 

Their lives are forever changed and anything Bergdahl experienced before and during his capture pales to what these men will have to endure for the rest of their lives.  It's very easy to empathize with these soldiers severely injured because of the actions of their fellow soldier, but if we stop there, we haven't told the whole story.  And we might be putting harsh blame on the wrong person, which means this scenario could happen again.  That's why, as hard as it may be, we must empathize with Bergdahl so no other soldier will be needlessly dispatched on a search and rescue mission for a deserter.

Someone hurting needs help, not judgement
Now we have to have a serious talk.  A difficult talk.  A talk that will make us look closely at our long held beliefs and challenge them.  A talk that may make us realize we really don't know as much as we like to think we know or maybe make us realize we're really just hypocrites in our thoughts.

When soldiers come home suffering with PTSD, we reach out
to support them.  When soldiers come home and kill themselves, our hearts break at the mental anguish and hurt they must've been silently suffering, anguish and hurt they brought home from the battlefield.  When soldiers kill themselves on the battlefield, we demand something be done to help our vets.  When a soldier walks off base in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by the terrorists he's fighting, we call him a coward and traitor and demand he be hung.

A rational soldier doesn't leave his post dead smack in the middle of hostile territory to go complain about a problem at his post to a commander at another post, an obviously trivial problem since we don't even know what it was Bergdahl wanted to complain about.  I dare say it's doubtful he even remembers what it was he wanted to complain about when he left his post.

But some background is in order.
Bergdahl didn't make it through the Coast Guard boot camp and was diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, a disorder related to schizophrenia.  It is unclear why the Coast Guard, upon discharging Bergdahl, didn't code his discharge as psychological and, instead, coded it as "uncharacterized discharge."  The Army, however, had recruitment numbers to meet and enlisted him despite his "uncharacterized discharge."  (Had the Coast Guard annotated the discharge correctly as "psychological", the Army would've had to conduct a psychological evaluation before enlisting him and could've quite possibly turned him down.)
On top of the schizophrenia-like diagnosis, he was later diagnosed with PTSDHe developed PTSD from an abusive childhood home life.  The condition was further exacerbated by his five year ordeal as a prisoner of the Taliban.

Mental illness comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors.  The colors aren't always depressing black, either.  In Bergdahl's case, his mental illness was an ongoing commentary in his mind and a preoccupation with a fantasy world.  This was before he joined the Army.  I can't even imagine what demons must be messing around in his mind now.

Thanks to Captain Owen over there in Britain, I did take the time to look at Bergdahl's case from a different angle - from Bergdahl's angle.  That's what empathize means. 

I didn't like what I saw.

Inter-branch errors and a push to meet recruitment numbers allowed a mentally ill person to enlist, a move that put thousands of military lives in danger.  Six weeks of Army boot camp should have weeded out a mentally ill person like Bergdahl before he left boot camp.  The Army failed to send him home.

When all else fails and a soldier does something stupid, commanders shouldn't be putting together  hastily planned courses of action that leave our troops under-equipped and vulnerable.  When things on the battlefield go wrong, we should be looking up the chain of command to learn what they did wrong, not looking down at the mentally ill person who caused the chain of events to rescue him as being the source of blame.

For the rest of us, stop being hypocrites.  We get all gushy over suicide rates in the military and we break out our wallets to help veterans with PTSD.  We view the mentally ill veteran suffering quietly with PTSD or the veteran who killed him or herself with honor and sympathy.  We view the mentally ill veteran who walks away from his or her post as a coward worthy only of the firing line.

Tell me.  How is the veteran who walks away from his post in the middle of a combat zone any more of a coward than the mentally ill veteran who hangs him or herself in the barracks?  How about the veteran who breaks down and is shipped home and given an honorable discharge?

Bergdahl and the reactions to him only underscores how little we understand, and perhaps care, about our mentally ill veterans.  Our reactions should also be a lesson about how we, including our government, view our veterans with PTSD or other mental illness problems associated with their service.  As long as a veteran doesn't hurt others, either directly or indirectly as Bergdahl did, we'll all throw a few dollars at their problems and use them for political purposes or ad revenue gain on our blogs.

Real mental healthcare education and reform needs to take place today.  As a veteran, I find it extremely difficult to defend Bergdahl in any manner because my emotions and sense of patriotic duty get in the way.  But I have to defend him.  Too many veterans are suffering and dying because it's too easy to get caught up in the testosterone driven, macho hype that pop culture delivers to us.  The real world has men and women who are hurting signing up and it has real men and women hurting because they signed up. They need our help.

Stop the rhetoric and scapegoating.   Sgt Mark Allen, Navy Seal James Hatch, and Cpl. Jonathan Morita deserve better.  If you don't know who these three veterans are, you are part of the problem.  Go back to the beginning of this article and learn who they are.

If you are a veteran, a family member of a veteran, or a friend of a veteran:
There are plenty of good resources out there to help you.  I usually don't go out of my way to recommend a website, but this one I will: Headspace and Timing: Veteran Mental Health from a Combat Veteran Perspective.  Even if you don't use the site this time, you'll find a link in the right hand column near the bottom under "Other blogs worth taking a gander."

TL;DR Folks:
Bergdahl wasn't a coward.  You'll have to read the above to understand why.

Related Links:
Whatever Happened to Those Veterans?
   Update to this story a year later)

For your listening education:

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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