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Cultural shift: Protect the people who protect us

By The Editorial Board

It’s clear the U.S. military is suffering a severe mental health crisis.

In 2014, an estimated 22 veterans and active service personnel committed suicide every day, Numbers from 2019 from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that number was closer to 17 per day, still an astonishing number.

“From 2001 to 2019, the rate of suicide among Veterans increased nearly 36% relative to an increase of 30% in the general population,” according to June 15 testimony before the House Veteran Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

Recently, the U.S. military has made a push to destigmatize mental health issues among soldiers. In November of 2022, they announced a program to remove outdated and stigmatizing language in reference to mental health conditions from military procedural documents. The move is designed to encourage soldiers to come forward if they need help and keep those in charge from dehumanizing people suffering through mental health crises.

Words help. Certainly at Gazette 2.0 our whole reason for being rests on a belief that the written word has power to create change. The changing attitude around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has vastly improved in the past few decades.

It used to be common in popular culture to make jokes about the flashbacks suffered by some Vietnam Veterans. Looking back, the indifference and cruelty of that is chilling.

Removing stigmatization through language will help the next generation of service people, but those who are already here, and currently dealing with these issues, need support.

In 2022, “286,907 veterans, service members (including members of the National Guard and Reserves) and their families received counseling at VA’s 300 Vet Centers, totaling nearly 1.34 million visits and outreach contacts,” according to a press release from the organization.

That press release was touting a scholarship program for people who wanted to enlist in the military to go to school for psychology. There is a shortage of qualified mental health professionals to deal with the issue. A scholarship is pushing the solution to the next generation once again.

In this issue, we interview veteran and staunch mental health advocate, retired Chief Master Sgt. Eric Dudash.

The Stowe Township native talks about finding new purpose and coping with his own ongoing struggles by reaching out to other vets and kids who are suffering from trauma.

The VA’s program #stillserving, gave him an outlet to help others. The charity he supports which connected him with a service dog to help him integrate back into society works tirelessly to provide dogs to service people at no cost.

The thing is, they’re only able to match between eight to 10 veterans with service dogs per year. They only serve individuals in three states. This is not a criticism of them – this is a call to everyone else.

Private charities and individuals – no matter how dedicated – can’t fill in all the gaps left by institutional neglect.

For all the money poured into our military this year – $722 billion – why isn’t there more being done?

For instance, Veterans Affairs does not help defray costs to pay for service dogs for veterans suffering with PTSD or brain injury. They do refer to non-profit organizations, but those are often relatively small operations.

In our area, PNC Bank participates in an annual “Mutt Strut,” to benefit an organization that connects veterans with dogs, Guardian Angel Medical Services — but it’s based in Florida.

There is a dearth of these charities locally.

It would be wrong to say service dogs are a panacea to an overwhelming crisis.

There is no one solution that would stop the epidemic in its tracks.

The CDC lists a variety of factors; economic problems, isolation, “underlying mental health and substance use disorders,” and access to guns.

They have set a goal of reducing suicide among current and retired service members by 25% by 2025, and have collected enough data to seriously implement programs which would help.

The program only funds 10 state departments of health, and Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.

This is not adequate. Politicians love to say they support veterans when it suits them. We as a populace can put pressure on them to do more for the mental health of our vets, and dare them to put that support in practice.

We can do more as a culture to protect the people who spent their lives protecting us.



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