Hawaii Soldiers Coming Home
For many soldiers getting back from Iraq or Afghanistan, the battle has just begun.
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Josh Finn was 18 when he joined the Army in 2002. Born and raised in Lahaina, Maui, he dreamed of becoming an international businessman and learning Japanese. The military offered money for a college degree and Finn was eager for adventure and to see the world. See the world he did; Finn shipped out with the 82nd Airborne Division, serving three tours of duty as an infantryman by the time he was 24, two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. He spent his time in the thick of the action, providing convoy security, manning checkpoints and participating in counter-insurgency operations such as cordon-and-search raids.
“We would knock on doors and look for specific people,” he says. “Sometimes we cleared whole sections of villages and would go house to house looking for weapons and contraband items.” Finn served well; by his last tour of duty, he had been promoted to squad leader.
After his six years were up, Finn returned to Hawaii to carry out his original goals. He enrolled in business and Japanese classes at Kapiolani Community College, but things didn’t go according to plan. In the months he was back, he developed anger and anxiety issues, started waking up in the middle of the night kicking and screaming, and began abusing alcohol and marijuana in an effort to keep it together. “I was a different person,” he says. “I was doing really poorly in school. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus. I was losing my mind, basically. Just couldn’t keep up.”
The experiences on which he had hoped to build his future were instead derailing his life.
Finn isn’t the only one coping with issues stemming from an overseas deployment. To date, Hawaii has sent tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—almost 5,000 National Guard members alone—and the deployments continue. Many of them are now coming back, but their experiences are coming back with them, and causing problems ranging from domestic and marital conflicts, to financial breakdowns and psychological disorders.
The woes are similar, if not identical, to the ones that began afflicting veterans of the Vietnam War 40 years ago. This time around, the U.S. government has recognized the problem, and has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into helping this decade’s new crop of enlisted personnel and veterans. The National Guard, for example, created the Yellow Ribbon program in 2008, to screen National Guard soldiers and their families for potential issues, not only before and during deployments, but 30, 60 and 90 days after soldiers return from deployments.
But despite all the attention being paid, and all the programs available from both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, many veterans aren’t getting the help to which they’re entitled, leaving private organizations and the court systems to step in.
There are a number of factors that keep men and women who have been traumatized in wartime situations from seeking the help they need. For one, there still exists a macho, “I can handle it myself” culture within the military, despite efforts to create a kinder, gentler armed force.
Finn says the post-deployment debriefings he attended in 2008 didn’t do much good, partially because he didn’t think he needed help at the time. “They give a lot of those safety briefings, but it’s kind of told in a half-joking manner, and it was really up to the soldiers to step forward for help,” he says. “Most of the soldiers, myself included, were in denial about how much we were affected. From my own experience, soldiers that sought out help were definitely ostracized, even if the official Army policy says, don’t look at them differently. So you try to hide it.”
Also, someone suffering from the psychological effects of war is often less equipped to seek the help they need. First Circuit Court Judge Ed Kubo says he regularly sees veterans and military personnel in his courtroom who aren’t getting the treatment and assistance they need, because they don’t know how. “People are falling through the cracks,” he says. “They don’t have the wherewithal to complete even a simple form, if they are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I don’t use this term in a derogatory way, but sometimes when someone has PTSD, you need to hold their hands and guide them through the process of climbing out of this hole.”
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Indeed, the highest profile complication of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan—and often the cause of the other problems faced by veterans—has been PTSD. Ken Hirsch, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Traumatic Stress Disorders Program at Tripler Army Medical Center, says that 18 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being diagnosed with the disorder, a rate he expects to rise to 30 percent. “The effect of repeated tours of duty is devastating,” he says.
The term PTSD was only formally recognized in 1980, but it’s far from a new phenomenon. The cluster of symptoms, which includes flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, anger and hypervigilance, was called battle fatigue in World War II, and shell shock in World War I. Veterans of the Civil War were said to have something called Soldier’s Heart, and references to PTSD-like symptoms can even be found in the works of Shakespeare and Homer.