Purple Heart, Purple Haze

Purple Heart, Purple Haze

By honoring the psychological wounds of soldiers–not shaming them–the armed forces might give fighting men and women the respect they deserve.


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On October 22, 1967, General William C. Westmoreland paid a surprise visit to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital near Long Binh, South Vietnam. He had come to distribute Purple Hearts. To his chagrin, he arrived first at a medical ward where soldiers were convalescing from various tropical diseases and infections. “Medical wards!” the General yelled. “I don’t want to see medical wards. I don’t want to see those fakers.” Westmoreland’s classless quote is recalled by doctors and nurses at the 93rd who were then treating those “fakers” and was recorded for posterity in David Maraniss’s Vietnam epic, They Marched Into Sunlight. The message was simple: When it came to the suffering of US soldiers, bombs and bullets were honorable; mosquitoes and microbes were not.

Now that the Pentagon has ruled explicitly to exclude victims of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) from eligibility for the Purple Heart medal–unless, of course, they have PTSD in addition to some other bleeding or broken or punctured malady–it seems that General Westmoreland’s callousness, out of touch forty years ago, still pervades the armed forces. Unless you bleed–really bleed–then you’re a “faker.” The “band of brothers” within the armed forces is taking a decidedly unbrotherly view of the debate over the Purple Heart, as comrades in combat have taken to implicitly rating their “brothers'” wounds: if there’s not enough gore involved, then the awarding of the medal becomes the subject of tawdry pettiness.

“Every badge hunter and his brother will have this distinguished award in their sights,” Army Captain Matthew Nichols wrote in a letter to the editor of Stars and Stripes last spring, when the specter of thousands of emotionally wounded teenaged and twentysomething veterans became an issue too pressing to ignore. Joe Palagyi, national adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, equated psychological trauma to “almost getting wounded.” In other words, if a soldier’s postwar life is emotionally shattered directly because of his service to his or her country, then it’s their own damn unsoldierly fault; any heroism or quick thinking that led to one’s almost–as opposed to actually–getting wounded is not triumphant but rather a gateway to mockery.

The Department of Defense’s ruling comes at an odd time. By 2007, only two states–Idaho and Wyoming–didn’t maintain some sort of mental health parity law (complete, limited or otherwise), and companies like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) were using thirty-second advertising spots to promote–and then promise the cure for–a raft of psychological afflictions. In GSK’s case, a frequently aired campaign glossed the symptoms of social anxiety disorder and then promoted Paxil as a remedy. Those Dickensian stigmas associated with psychological disease, it would seem, were receding: you wouldn’t make fun of a fellow on crutches; why make fun of one on Klonopin? Moreover, in a sidebar to the ’08-’09 economic crisis, the $700 billion bailout package passed by Congress in October also included the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, which, when implemented nationally in 2010, will require insurers to treat (and pay for) mental afflictions on a par with physical afflictions. Even insurers in Idaho and Wyoming will have to pay for a couple of Effexor or Clonazepam prescriptions here and there.

But the armed forces don’t take such a tolerant view of mental hygiene. The problem, according to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a Pentagon-supported group, is that awarding the decoration for psychological afflictions would “debase” the medal, like a kid watering down the lemonade so he can make more profit. After all, how would an amputee feel if he had to share his honor with someone who’s merely suffering from a shattered psyche? It simply wouldn’t be fair. Then again, it’s not really fair to have our veterans searching for solace in suicide, either, which is what’s happening at an increasingly alarming rate among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2007 CBS News investigation deemed suicide to be “epidemic” among returning veterans, which found their suicide rates to be twice that of non-veterans.

Still, 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. While quiet depression doesn’t quite appeal to classic ideals of heroism in the way that, say, shredded viscera or an amputated limb can, it’s a slippery argument to make when a widely cited report says 20 percent of American fighting forces suffer from PTSD or severe depression. Though not exactly the Devil’s Arithmetic, if one applies this 20 percent proportion to civilian life, then of the 180 or so passengers seated on a filled Boeing 757-223–the same type of jet that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11–between thirty and forty of them, more than enough to fill the entire first-class cabin, would take a more pessimistic view of surviving an incident-free flight than most psychiatrists would prefer.

A wounded soldier, whether he or she suffers from PTSD or from an RPG-shattered face, is a wounded soldier. By shining honor, and not shame, onto the psychological wounds of victimized soldiers, the armed forces can perhaps begin to update their decidedly old-fashioned vision of sacrifice and give their fighting men and women the credit and respect they deserve.

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