VFW Reduces Stigma of Seeking Help
In May of 2011, I received a call from an aunt who shared some disturbing events about my uncle. He was displaying bizarre behavior that resembled symptoms of some traumatic unresolved event and was speaking incoherently about war-related events. My uncle was a career Soldier, enlisting in the Army at 17-years-old as an infantry paratrooper, and later received a Commission in the Quartermaster Corps as a logistician. After completing three tours in Vietnam, the Army released him from active duty due to a postwar drawdown. Though he was able to retire, he became bitter because, “I loved the Army and wanted to stay.” Unable to continue his career, my uncle went to work in the business sector, closing a chapter of a successful military career. Years into retirement, my uncle remained bitter about his separation and worse, carried with him demons from the battlefield that only he knew about. Within 10-years of retirement, my uncle developed illnesses characteristic of Agent Orange syndrome. Fortunately, he was able to receive treatment private insurance for his physical symptoms however, as for most combat veterans, the hidden injuries remained. Unfortunately, he ultimately lost the ability to conceal these injuries during a time when he was completely divested from a community that understood could relate to his experiences.
My uncle’s situation is characteristic of many Service Members who separate from the military hoping to reintegrate into a community that support and appreciates their service. For Vietnam vets, however, the challenge of reintegration was twofold. In addition to coping with negative public sentiments of their participation in the war, vets had to cope with the stigma of mental health issues associated with combat trauma. When my aunt called me to aid my uncle, he was experiencing a flood of past memories and emotions that overwhelmed his capacity to cope. He refused to discuss these issues with her or other providers. When talking with me, he did took an interest in comparing our military service which opened the door to more specific discussion about his combat experiences. Ultimately, he became receptive to speaking with a VFW representative who connected him with a Veteran Administration representative who further assisted him in opening a case and entering treatment.
For over a hundred years, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) has been working in support of Service Members like my uncle. The overall mission of VFW is to foster a spirit of camaraderie that encourages vets to connect with a community advocate that understands their plight. VFW’s vision is to ensure that veterans “are respected for their service, receive earned entitlements, and are recognized for sacrifices made on behalf of this great country”. Many veterans hide their postwar complications due to associated stigma. According to the American Psychological Association, the Defense Department reached out to APA for expert guidance regarding how best to destigmatize such mental disorders as post-traumatic stress disorder and to encourage military personnel to seek mental health care. VFW understands the stigma associated with mental health injuries and creates a relaxed environment that engages and encourages Service Members’ participation in reintegration and recovery. They do so by implementing a wide variety of support services that addresses multiple facets of a service member’s life.
For over twenty years my uncle was bitter with the Army and went at it alone regarding his transition and healthcare issues. His love/ hate relationship with the Army became a barrier to him accessing services through the Veterans Administration (VA) and his immediate family did not understand his injuries well enough to help. Immediately upon contacting VFW on behalf on my uncle, a VFW representative facilitated an appointment with the VA and served as a bridge to connect him with services. During the first meeting with the VFW representative, the focus of discussion was along the lines of connection, camaraderie and trust. Developing this relationship served as a bridge to connecting my uncle with the VA by dispelling his fears, and making the approach to VA less threatening. In addition, VFW offered support to my aunt through the family assistance and transitional support program. This service connected her with individuals that understood the language of combat trauma and helped her to understand process of change.
VFW is sometimes criticized as a meeting place where veterans to go to reminisce with old drinking buddies, however, that is an inaccurate assessment of the value of the VFW. In 2007 the APA made two recommendations that could be effective in reducing stigma surrounding mental disorders: “Increased confidentiality related to mental health treatment, whenever possible, and a public education campaign based on building resilience to help mitigate the effects of stigma.” VFW can be a viable option to creating a resilience campaign that addresses the type of stigma that prevents Service Members from seeking help.