Friday, June 24, 2011

A little PSA from me to you

According to his website The Long Walk, for over 34 years Ron Zaleski has moved about his life barefoot. Why? He does it to remember his fellow soldiers. Ron served in the Marines in the early 1970’s, and while he was never called to serve overseas, many of his friends were. When they returned he saw what an impact war had on them. On June 1st 2010 he set out to make the rest of the United States understand, what soldiers already know. War damages more than just the buildings around you. As a soldier I have seen the cost of war, my husband and my brother served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of them is unchanged, and they both suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on our country we have deployed hundreds of thousands of our soldiers. I am here today to talk to you about PTSD, the effects it has on our soldiers, why this is important, and what you can do to help.

First it is important to understand what PTSD is. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is one of a very few disorders known to be caused by a disturbing outside event. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is classified as an anxiety disorder, characteristic symptoms develop after traumatic exposure; historically PTSD has also been called railway spine, stress syndrome, shell shock, combat or battle fatigue, traumatic war neurosis, or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). Reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be manifold; although most people experience trauma in the course of a lifetime, only 8% of them develop PTSD, according to the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.

Veteran as defined by is a person who has served in a military force; especially one who has fought in a war. Everyday 18 Veterans commit suicide that means that in a year’s time more than 6500 have died needlessly. Veterans and soldiers are in need of better counseling; the fact is that civilian police and firefighters receive better coping and grief counseling than our soldiers. Actually the average college student receives more coping and grief counseling than our soldiers. Soldiers and veterans are unlikely to seek help for many reasons including stigma and being seen as week. When I was in basic training the joke was that water and Motrin, could and would cure all that ails you. You fell and broke your leg? Drink water. Oh you fell 15 feet, broke your leg, and the bone is sticking out, drink water and take a Motrin. With this pervasive and ignorant view from the very beginning of training how can we expect soldiers to seek the help they need? In 2009, more soldiers committed suicide than during any previous period on record. Despite being ordered in early 2009 not to commit suicide. Our soldiers and veterans sacrificed to keep us free, how is it that we cannot keep them safe?

A soldier leaves home a civilian, and upon reaching their training base is immediately bombarded with a rigid rigorous schedule designed to force compliance and uniformity. In fact that is one of the first things a soldier is forced to learn/accept, uniformity. For the males this means loss of head hair, their hair is shaved to approximately ¼ inch in length. For the females hair must be pulled up, it must not touch the collar; there is no make-up, no fingernail polish, curling irons, and blow dryers are a thing of the past. You as the individual are not important. It becomes your goal to blend in and not stand out. Standing out means you’ve done something to be noticed, as Private Kelly in my basic training company learned to his regret. Every time the whole company was congregated and the First Sergeant was there, Private Kelly was standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down, and doing push-ups. It is to be hoped that he learned his lesson before moving onto the rest of his military career. Uniformity is ingrained by the time you reach your first duty station, anything that makes you standout is recorded in your Military Personal Records Jacket, and it follows you for the rest of your career.

It is no wonder with such a concern that soldiers are not likely to go and seek mental health help when they need it. Quite often mental health is seen as a threat of punishment. In fact my company commander threatened me with mental health at one point. Who among you would today go to your boss and say ‘you know, I’m not feeling very happy with life. I’ve been thinking about ending mine.’ Or ‘I’m so angry all the time I’d like to strangle somebody’ better yet, ‘I miss holding my gun, are you sure I can’t have my gun at work?’ This is a major reason that military mental health facilities are not as effective as they could be.

A recent study mentioned on found that older veterans who suffer from PTSD are nearly twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related dementias compared to veterans without PTSD. This study is one of the first to link combat-related trauma to dementia later in life. It is not yet clear if having PTSD increases the risk of late-life dementia or not. There is however compelling evidence that repeated or chronic stress may damage the hippocampus, the area of the brain critical for memory and learning. The study followed 180,000 older male veterans, 53,000 of which had been diagnosed with PTSD. In 2000 none had dementia, however approximately 31,000 had been diagnosed by late 2007. Could proper care have prevented this?

In 2005 Ron Zaleski realized that going through life barefoot was not much more than an act of personal penance, which he talks about on his website It might make him feel better, but it was essentially meaningless otherwise. He decided that he needed to raise awareness, and began planning to walk the Appalachian Trail. But what good did it do to raise awareness when he didn’t have a plan. So he sat down and came up with a plan. June 2010 he started on a 16 month journey from Concord walking across the country barefoot with a signboard. The sign board reads 18 Vets commit suicide each day. Ron walks between 10 and 15 miles barefoot each day, on highways, and freeways, the weather doesn’t matter and people are welcome to stop and walk with him as well. It is Ron’s hope to collect one million signatures on a petition which he intends to present to the President. On his first day he collected eight signatures. His petition list’s three goals they are as follows:

1. Goal: To institute mandatory “grief” counseling for all military personnel as an integral part of the boot camp programs. It would be similar to that which the police and fire fighter personnel receive, so as to enable them to more effectively cope with the emotions that are associated with the trauma of loss of life and limb.

Justification: A) Our troops go into combat totally unprepared for the trauma to come. B) This preparation would pave the way for making treatment for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) more acceptable and more effective. C) Troops would be more effective and efficient in accomplishing assigned tasks.

2. 2) Goal: Establishment of a mandatory Civilian Re-Entry Program for all military personnel prior to discharge. This could be accomplished efficiently in larger groups.

Justification: A) This will give personnel tools and skills to assist them in dealing with the transition to civilian life. B) It ensures more effective screening of those who are severely affected but who neither recognize nor admit it. C) Making the program mandatory, as well as calling it a Civilian Re-Entry Program removes the stigma of PTSD and acknowledges that it is a human condition, that the personnel are not broken nor weak. D) Making the program mandatory prior to discharge also enables those who receive a Section 8 or conditional discharge to get appropriate attention they would otherwise not get due to the loss of benefits. E) This program ensures that no one slips through the cracks.

3. 3) Goal: Making support groups available after discharge, similar to a 12-Step program, to enable separated personnel to continue to lead productive lives.

Justification: Such a program would foster more trust among veterans, the government and civilians through concrete evidence that the nation they served cares enough to do something both practical and effective.

Today I am asking you, is this acceptable? Is this something that we can allow to continue? If you agree with me, that this is not acceptable, that there has to be a better way than the current military system. I ask you to go to and sign the petition. We need to send a clear and concise message to the leaders of our country, the leaders of our military that our soldiers and veterans deserve better. Our soldiers and veterans deserve better, safer, mental health treatment. The stigma of mental health should be removed, any soldier who seeks treatment should not have that specter follow through the rest of their military career. Mental health debriefings should be mandatory after all deployments, and prior to discharge.