I must say up front that I had a problem with both Mr. Apter's and Maraniss's use of an incident that allegedly occurred during Vietnam involving General Westmoreland's attitude toward soldiers that were not wounded in combat as being slackers and fakers. My first reaction was to question the accuracy of this report, even if I believed Westmoreland had such an attitude. Heck, that attitude about severity of wounds still exists today, and it is not limited to flag or general officers--the Military Order of the Purple Heart and like Americanism organizations are cases in point. See the end of my article online on Veterans Today for my views on what really did happen with the Westmoreland incident in Nam. If you are a Nam vet, be sure to read my commentary, because the book Mr. Apter refers to is being made into a major motion picture to be released in 2010.
It is the rest of the story that really matters, and it is accurate. I agree with Mr. Apter's views on the Pentagon and the apathetic attitude towards those with PTSD that enhances the stigma rather than deals with it head on. This attitude does more to degrade and stigmatize the entire military awards and decorations system than the awarding of a medal for PTSD ever would. Cases in point are the Swift-boating of John Kerry's medals, and the Purple Heart Band-Aid incident at the 2004 Republican convention. An incident BTW I believe that only Vietnam Veterans of America spoke out against--the MOPH remained silent.
Highlighting this callous attitude are unfounded views, like "every badge hunter" will be crawling out of the woodwork to scam American tax payers for this medal. Well, I've got news for that Captain (whichever war period he served or is serving). What the heck did Congress pass the Stolen Valor Act for? It was to prosecute fake vets and make badge hunting highly illegal. How many media cases of badge hunters being prosecuted or found have occurred since Vietnam, especially after passage of the Stolen Valor Act? Not very many! That weak argument is hogwash.
This is of course part of the "stolen valor" argument or claim that fake veterans and medal hunters are continuing to fall outta the sky. Give me a break, Captain, that's what Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act for: to prevent such a flood of fakes via prosecution--what more do you guys want?
Mr. Apter notes that "Joe Palagyi, national adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, equated psychological trauma to 'almost getting wounded.' " Well, that of course rings of John Kerry almost earning his medals, encourages distasteful Purple Heart Band-Aids at national political rallies--let's not forget the stories about Senator Max Cleland's wounds being self-inflicted, plus Max's being a Muslim-lover and, last but not least, that John McCain got special treatment and collaborated with the enemy during captivity--all "stolen valor" lies for political gain--nothing more, nothing less!
Mr. Apter does have an insightful view of timing and attitude from a professional medical-mental health viewpoint, though I do not believe he is a medical or mental health professional. I may be wrong. He sounds like he knows what he's talking about.
The irony when Mr. Apter notes that "the armed forces don't take such a tolerant view of mental hygiene" is that the military has its own in-house medical and mental health expertise. What does this say about them? Best yet, how many did Mr. Apter consult with for their opinion, views or, worse yet, silence? I believe that silence is just as much a admission of guilt, of fear of speaking out, because one will not get promoted.
I believe Mr. Apter may have gotten this wrong in his passion, costing clarity and accuracy: I do not believe that the Military Order of the Purple Heart is a Pentagon-supported group. That claim is misleading--unless, perhaps, Mr. Apter can clarify what he means by Pentagon-supported. The American Legion, VFW, MOPH, do have very limited lobbying access to give input and feedback to DoD, and even provide support to the Pentagon via Americanism and serious support for troops as long as they are combat-wounded per se, but no Veterans Service Organization is supported by the Pentagon. The closest they have come to being so was/is America Supports Bush.mil (really America Support You.mil, which the Pentagon IG recently found to be knee-deep in corruption and misuse of taxpayer money. Thus, most intelligent people even within the military know how credible that organization still is).
Speaking of which, let's throw a monkey wrench in MOPH's definition and attitude toward the Purple Heart in a direction that Mr. Apter did not follow but would have found interesting. Their traditionalist contention tends to be that one has to have been in contact or combat with the enemy and suffered wounds as a result. This is for female readers out there. Technically, under this definition, women in the Armed Forces should not and cannot be awarded the Purple Heart. How many women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been awarded the Purple Heart as an exception to the rule? Very few, but some.
Our society--and the Pentagon, for that matter, to include the Army--makes it an official policy that women in the Armed Forces are not placed in combat units. Thus, despite the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan having relatively few if any non-combat zones or safe areas for women, the MOPH must either exclude women from receiving the Purple Heart or change their views to reflect twenty-first-century realities of combat.
Every argument we've heard about either granting or denying dignified recognition of PTSD--or wounds, for that matter--have totally ignored the fact that women continue to play a more significant role in our volunteer armed forces and in combat, however defined, despite technicalities. Put another way, I believe it's only a matter of time before we see by necessity women in armored units, inside tanks. Not because our society desires it or even the Army endorses it but because the units have no choice but to admit that women can do combat. Hell, they are doing it as I type this.
For the rest of my thoughts on this subject, and there are many, please see my article. I don't take a preaching-to-the-choir approach with Mr. Apter, but I believe he's got most of this story right!
In closing, back to other technicalities, Mr. Apter notes that, "PTSD and depression, according to the Pentagon, are not intentionally caused by the enemy and are therefore not the types of wounds that DoD likes to celebrate." (I prefer the term "dignify," not "celebrate"--now Apter is being a bit unintentionally callous.)
In response to the very valuable view offered by the medical doctor: Sir, that would be a brilliant idea of awarding some sort of recognition that will dignify PTSD as a wound of war. However, the fly in the buttermilk, so to speak, is that stigma is so strong within or armed forces and veterans communities today. Just how many veterans and active duty troops, including me, would seriously want to identify themselves or broadcast the fact that we have PTSD? I would say not too many of us, nor do we care about a medal or ribbon. Dignified treatment, social acceptance and focus on doing away with stigma, first in our Armed Forces, and then our society would be a far greater and nobler cause. Why?
When it comes to issues of social stigma or discrimination, it has historically been our armed forces who made progressive change, kicking and screaming, way before American society did. The military integrated races, although not perfectly, far before our society did.
Robert L. Hanafin, Major, US Air Force-Ret.
Feb 5 2009 - 9:58am