If this is help, run away while you can ...

By Jan Adams
Jan 23, 2011

Veteran and organizer Joe Callan talks about the campaign to stop deployment of traumatized troops.

We know that lots of troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have had experiences that make them pretty crazy. A distressing number of them commit suicide -- this was a report a year ago:

"Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans,'' said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at a VA-sponsored suicide prevention conference on Monday. "That means on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA."

I've been catching up on my podcasts -- listening to episodes of NPR's Fresh Air interview show that I missed. I've just gotten up to mid-November when I heard an exchanged that about floored me.

I have to ask, if you were in the military, would you want to be "helped" by this guy, Dr. Craig Bryan, who is the lead consultant to the U.S. Air Force for psychological health promotion initiatives as well as the U.S. Marine Corps' Suicide Prevention Program? He also treats active-duty serviceman and veterans for PTSD. From the interview transcript:

TERRY GROSS: You know what I'm thinking must be difficult for you as a psychiatrist -I mean, in the civilian world, I think any kind of therapist tries to help their patients exercise their own free will in the most productive way that they can. But free will is a little bit limited when you're in the service and, you know, the Pentagon has decided that, you know, you are going back for another deployment - and you don't want to.

Dr. BRYAN: Right.

GROSS: You don't have a choice there. So then what becomes your role as their psychiatrist, when they don't have a choice, and they're being told to face death and to face the possibility of having to kill when they feel like, I'm done with that; I can't do that anymore.

Dr. BRYAN: Right. First off, I'm a psychologist, not a psychiatrist.

GROSS: Okay. Thank you for correcting me.

Dr. BRYAN: So just a quick clarification. I know that sometimes we play similar roles, but slightly different training. But as a psychologist, I'll do mostly, you know, behavioral therapy - sort of the classic talk therapy. And the way I approach that - because you do find that interesting dynamic within the military quite often, not necessarily related only to deployment but many aspects of military life, in that a huge part of it is to help service members understand that actually, they do have a choice. They do have the ability to exercise free will, although maybe the options that they have available to them are more limited than it would be if they were, you know, not in the military.

And kind of to illustrate this, or to provide an example is, if you had a service member like this who doesn't want to deploy again but yet, you know, they have received orders to deploy overseas, what I would work with or talk with that individual about is, you know, why did they join the military? And oftentimes, I will pose to them - it's like, well, fine then, don't deploy. You don't have to deploy. And, of course, they usually say I'm crazy and say - or I'll - well, I'll end up in jail. If I don't do it, I'll be a deserter, and I'll end up in jail. And then I point out to them, so there you go. So your choice is deployment or jail. And it's not a good choice, by any means.

And then what we do is, we start talking with them about their ideals, their principles, what is it they value in life, you know, what type of a person do they want to be, why did they join the military. And of course, what you usually get from these individuals, you get themes like, well, I stand for honor, integrity. I care about my family. You know, I want to provide for my spouse or for my children. You know, you get these - you get them connected with what they consider to be important, and who they want to be.

And then once we've identified that, you really kind of pose that choice to them again and say, you know, you've made a commitment to the military. And part of that commitment is a sacrifice of some of your individual autonomy. And so as you consider whether or not you're going to deploy with the military or go to jail, which of these two options will help you to be the man or woman of honor, integrity, a good parent, a good spouse - you know, all of those ideals.

And when you frame it in that way, usually people start to realize that okay, I do have a choice and I don't like it - and I never ask a service member to like the choice. I'm just asking them to make the choice that will help them be the person that they want to be so that, you know, they feel comfortable with all of the decisions that they've made in life even when they're not the decisions they want to be making.

GROSS: And I'm going to tell you - listening to that, I know that the correct answer is supposed to be: So I will deploy and continue with my military responsibility - as opposed to going to jail. But really - like, if you pose that choice to me, I might think: Maybe I'll go to jail because probably I won't get killed there.

Dr. BRYAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...whereas if I go to Iraq, I might get killed and then my children might not have a father and, you know, my spouse might not have a spouse and...

Dr. BRYAN: Right.

GROSS: Do you know what I'm saying? It doesn't - I'm not sure that that choice makes it - would make it any easier for me.

Dr. BRYAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I'm not in that position, so I can't say.

Dr. BRYAN: Yeah. And, you know, if a service member were to respond with that, you know, I certainly can't force you to make one choice or another.

And what we would do is engage in a conversation about what the consequences are associated with okay, I'll go to prison instead. Say, okay, so how does that help you become, you know, all of these things that you want to be? And if that's your choice, then that's your choice.

And, you know, I certainly cannot force your mind, in many ways. All I can do, as a psychologist, is help you to understand the ramifications of the decision you make and hopefully, help you to make the decision that is in your best interest, and that sort of most matches and aligns with who you are as a person because really, that's the pathway to, you know, reduced suffering in life.

At least someone in this conversation is showing some insight and compassion. I'm with Terry. Jail it is.

This is not medical help -- it's treating a damaged person as a disposable replacement part to be used up by the government. No surprise really; war is like that. Nor is it any surprise that so many vets take their own lives, if this is the quality of "help" the military offers.

Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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