It was around Veterans Day last year when Ken Iaciofano began to drink heavier than usual. The 22-year-old Iraq Veteran was known to be a drinker but it had gotten worse in the fall, culminating in a drunk driving accident that injured several people, including himself. To the prosecutors and court system in Cumberland, Rhode Island, he must have seemed like a trouble making alcoholic. To his lifelong friends from the Army, he was the funny guy everyone called ‘Ice’ for short. But when he found himself hours away from his nearest battle buddy and facing prison time for his drunk driving, he turned to the bottle for help. On the weekend of Veterans Day, it was just him and a bottle of vodka. His odd decision to take a bath under the influence was the last he would make. At some point he slipped under the water, and his grandmother found him in the tub, drowned. One of the nicest guys from my infantry company survived a deployment to Iraq only to die in his own bathroom. His friends would later say they didn’t know he was suffering that badly.
Every November 11, the country takes the time to honor Veterans who have served the country in uniform. The day is often confused with Memorial Day, when the nation remembers those killed while in the service. Veterans Day is reserved to remember all those who have served, both living and deceased. Through their service, Vets often possess a strong sense of history and legacy of the military. Many understand they aren’t the first, and certainly not the last, to put on the uniform. They carry on tradition and pass it off to those who come after. Unfortunately, they pass along damaging stigmas as well. The hardest one to fight undoubtedly is that only the weak are stricken with Post Traumatic Stress.
“Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”
– Homer, “The Odyssey”
Combat trauma is as ancient as combat itself, but many don’t view it that way. Even before Odysseus sailed from Troy with the burden of battle on his mind, the horrors of war have exacted a toll on the men and women who have fought them. Just as Veterans continue the legacy of service and sacrifice, post traumatic stress will be carried through the ages as an immovable aspect of the battlefield, just as real and damaging as tanks and artillery. Recent studies have even suggested that the brain undergoes physical changes after experiencing traumatic stress. The danger is real and serious, but stereotypes and mischaracterizations plague the military and discourage service members from getting the help they need both as service members and Veterans.
What can be done to fight the stigma? The answer has eluded doctors, physicians and Veterans ever since PTS and PTSD were considered bona fide injuries after Vietnam. Luckily, awareness of post traumatic stress has risen dramatically over the past several years. Wartorn: 1861-2010, a documentary about PTSD from the Civil War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, debuts today on HBO. Before its release, it was screened at the Pentagon where a Defense Department and VA-led panel discussed ideas to address the suicide crisis affecting the military and Veteran communities. Chief among them: communities must embrace and look after warriors when they come home. Recognizing the signs of PTS and PTSD could save a life in crisis. Many Veterans simply don’t know what resources are available to help. VA’s Suicide Prevention line can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and a live chat can be accessed at the Veterans Suicide Prevention site. Both are manned 24/7.
The population of female Veterans continues to grow. The consequences for unprecedented roles for women in combat mean unique and challenging PTSD and suicide prevention needs. Programs and services are available for women at VA, as well as resources to address Military Sexual Trauma.
Veterans Day honors both the living and the dead, but those who come home from war have earned a happy and full life. To join the ranks of the proud who served the nation is the best way to honor the fallen who didn’t make it back. But the military and Veteran communities shouldn’t share the burden to watch out for signs of PTS and PTSD. Families, friends, coworkers and neighbors must do their part to recognize the signs and help Veterans get the care they need. I can’t think of a better way to say “Thank you for your service.”
No one can say for certain if Ice was in an emotional crisis during the last moments of his life, but it is clear he was in need of help. The nation is dishonored whenever a combat Veteran loses his life after surviving war, so it is up to each and every one of us to do our part to ensure every Veterans Day is met with cherished memories of service instead of hopelessness. Whenever you see a Veteran, just don’t say “Thank you,” but ask that ever important question, “How are you doing?” Have that 1-800 number handy. You could be saving a life.
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