Historically, the physical wounds of war have been revered, while the invisible wounds have gone unmentioned. A physical injury may result in a medal. A brain injury may result in feelings of isolation.
Today, one-third of servicemembers return home with an invisible wound of war, and 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Regardless of whether we wear the impacts of war for all to see or keep them hidden within ourselves, we know now that every wound must be healed. Our Military Health System has made strides in raising awareness of, and treating, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the negative stigmas associated with these mental health diseases are far from gone. Brain injuries or post-traumatic stress can make the return to civilian life a struggle.
In 2003, at age 17, I joined the military to pay for college. I ended up gaining so much more from my experience in the service than just a college degree. The greatest lesson I learned was developing a mission-first mindset, where we’re not allowed to say, “That’s not my job.” As servicemembers, our job is to do whatever it takes to complete the mission. We push ourselves to the limit and we take risks.
But while we develop the skills required to protect our country and later lead in our civilian careers, we also experience trauma that inflicts real and deep wounds.
New medical research suggests the mental health disorders from war may be the direct result of physical forces on the battlefield, and may run deeper among our warriors than previously thought. In fact, over 90 percent of combat veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced artillery, rocket or mortar attacks.
I’ve experienced the pain of battling invisible wounds, and I’ve witnessed fellow servicemembers with similar challenges hesitate to seek help because it feels like defeat. Acknowledging these scars often feels like an admission of being broken from our experiences. The reality, however, is that we aren’t broken — we are warriors who were injured defending our country.
War also takes its toll on families, who serve right alongside their warriors and share in their suffering. From the emotional strain on relationships to the constant anxiety and fear, family members experience high levels of stress that can deteriorate mental health and well-being.
Acknowledging invisible wounds is the first challenge for many veterans. Seeking help is the second.
More than 1.5 million of the 5.5 million veterans seen in Department of Veteran Affairs hospitals had a mental health diagnosis in 2016, a 31 percent increase since 2004. And, according to the American Mental Health Association, at least 20 percent of Americans are uninsured for mental health treatment and rely on public hospitals to receive mental health services.
This lack of basic mental health benefits for civilians is intensified by veterans leaving the service with invisible wounds. Families face the same challenges in finding accessible, effective and affordable mental health care.
As a result, we must change the narrative around both physical and mental trauma and foster more effective health care resources for our servicemembers. Considering the dynamics of modern warfare, warriors and their families have very natural reactions to very unnatural experiences. Admitting that traumatic events have left scars isn’t a sign of weakness and seeking help should be easy.
When I was in the military, we lived by the belief that we can always be better tomorrow than we are today. And that we all had the responsibility to leave organizations in a better place than when we found them. I’ve brought that same mindset to my career and feel a sense of responsibility to extend a lifeline to our warriors. I thought I would exit basic training as a highly trained soldier ready for combat. And while basic training provides a strong foundation for combat skills, it can never truly prepare us for the long-term effects of war.
Many organizations, such as Home Base, have emerged to offer the help servicemembers, veterans and families need to live the lives that they’ve earned. Through clinical care, fitness and wellness-based programs, community outreach, education and research, these organizations provide veterans the care required to overcome the effects of these invisible wounds of war and successfully return to family life, jobs and communities.
If you have a friend or family member who suffers from the invisible wounds of war, get them the resources they need to move forward with their healing. Those who have served should have every opportunity to succeed in the next phase of life.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014 for his actions during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2008. He is a financial analyst for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems and works with the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital program Home Base.