By Nikki Dawson, Graduate Intern at NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania
One of the biggest disconnects between civilians, and veterans and service members, is the myth that if we’ve been to war we have posttraumatic stress disorder. I understand how easy it would be to fall into that mindset; as often times, when veterans make headlines, especially national headlines, it’s not because we are out trying to save the world. Typically, we make national headlines when someone has been pushed to the edge and unfortunately commits a crime, or even worse, dies by suicide. I also acknowledge that the media uses those stories to either (a) get the American people to sympathize with our struggles or (b) shed light on the missteps of the VA healthcare system. And while I will give Hollywood credit for trying to relate our experiences in war to the public, they tend to share individual stories not common to the whole, further perpetuating the stereotype and stigma.
One of the biggest dangers in assuming we all have PTSD is missing out on who we really are, because quite honestly most of us are pretty great. I use the word “most” just like any other population, we too have bad apples, and with the exception of those individuals, we’re usually pretty cool. I’ve witnessed first-hand the effects of this dangerous assumption and quite honestly it’s disheartening. I’ll walk into a room full of people and everyone stops to stare because they know you’ve been to war. Then they begin whispering and eventually someone asks the question, “So how was it over there, did you see anything?”, or even worse, “Did you kill anyone?” As a common courtesy to the veteran population, please stop asking those questions. While some do not mind answering the difficult questions, it can be triggering for others. And while I’m not suggesting you avoid us (please don’t), be mindful of the questions you are asking. Ask us about the good things we did over there that are not mentioned enough. For example, many of the units I was deployed with conducted what are called “hearts and minds” operations. These missions were opportunities to connect with the local nationals. Units installed water treatment plants, loaded backpacks with school supplies to distribute, hosted village events and even rebuilt schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure.
Even if we do have PTSD, why does it matter? Thousands of people experience PTSD unrelated to war, but you wouldn’t know it because the public doesn’t make as big of a deal about it. So why put the spotlight on veterans? When we come home and transition from the service, the majority of us just want to get back to living life as best we can. Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with PTSD, we are denied basic necessities when people make the assumption we have it. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination, nothing protects us from the assumption that we are damaged, an insurance liability, or “loose cannons”. But that’s why I’m here at NAMI volunteering my time, because to me it’s important that veterans have a veteran voice, especially when it comes to their mental health. I consider myself proof that with the right course of treatment, we can overcome our obstacles and get back on the path to greatness.