Suicide rates for veterans are growing. Returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder are treated with painkillers, an expedient yet inadequate treatment for overcoming war-related traumas. Since Congress is authorized to declare war, shouldn’t they take some responsibility for helping returning soldiers transition to civilian life?
What has Congress done this year? During the October shutdown, it played partisan games with veteran funding. What can they do? Our elected representatives could lead. They could start by creating new conversations about our veterans. They can study the history of labels that have described past U.S. post-war traumas:
Introduced during the Vietnam War and employed for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the PTSD label is clinical, crisp and impersonal. It could as well be used to describe an additive we put in our cars for improved performance. Worse, the word “disorder” in this acronym implies that something is wrong with the veteran — not the experience he or she has been through. Who would not be disordered by the choice each day to kill or be killed? PTSD denies the truth of the veteran’s experience; it reveals a culture of denial.
In World War II, veterans returned home with “battle fatigue,” a euphemism that reduced the horrors of war to extreme weariness. In the 1947 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” three veterans struggle as they transition to civilian life. One veteran, Homer Parrish, is played by Harold Russell, a real life solider who lost his hands in the war. When his mother has to take off his prosthetic hooks before he goes to bed, Homer wonders aloud if his fiancée will want to do this. The film won seven Oscars in 1947, including Best Picture. Moviegoers were not deterred by this realistic drama. Adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top 100 grossing films of all time.
In World War I, veterans returned “shellshocked.” These words described the actual experience of this war. The punctuating “sh” sounds evoke the image of deafening explosions that maimed and killed soldiers in rat-infested trenches. These were words civilians could relate to. Comedian George Carlin called this label “simple, honest and direct.” It legitimized the wartime experiences for returning soldiers and also for those in their communities.
The postwar label used in the Civil War was “soldier’s heart.” In “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” author and educator Parker J. Palmer reminds us that in the mid-1800s the word “heart” meant the convergence of all of our ways of knowing — “intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily.” This label embraced the fact that war “shatters a person’s sense of self and community.” Our veterans’ deep need to rebuild these connections exposes the harm of using a term like PTSD. It further isolates them from their communities.
Why not float an impractical and urgently needed proposal? Let’s restore American values of integrity and wholeness by replacing clinical terms like PTSD with words that describe the soldier’s true experience. “Soldier’s heart,” is a good choice. In fact, the word “heart” has the same root as the word “courage.” Why wouldn’t Congress want to take the lead in changing how we talk about our veterans?
The benefits are huge. This could restore a sense of self and community for soldiers who have put their lives on the line to fight our battles. Carlin believed that if PTSD had been replaced with real words like “shell shock,” Vietnam veterans might have gotten the help they needed to recover, not just survive.
Removing the stigma of PTSD will show our veterans today that we want them to heal physically, psychologically and spiritually. Finding words that build empathy will lead to political connectedness, not political correctness. It will reinforce our common humanity. It will transform lives.
Change our words — change our world.
L.J. Rittenhouse is the author of “Investing Between the Lines” and founder of CEO Candor Audits.