Janine Boldrin, Contributor
Creative Director, Chameleon Kids
Army Wives: Alaska. Coming Home. Stars Earn Stripes. There’s a lot of interest in the reality of military life. But even with all of these shows, I’m left wondering about what story they are telling because, for the past decade, most of the military families I know have been living a reality that I don’t see on primetime.
Episode one of any show I’ve watched doesn’t feature deployment number five which is a coming attraction over in my friends’ living room next month. Where’s the show called “Leaving Home,” documenting the crying on the front end of a year apart? Note the crying kids in unmatched shirts in the background. Oh, and those beautiful homecomings. Those big, flag draped hangars filled with soldiers. I wish every real life reunion installment ended that way. Maybe I could write an episode for a new series. I’ll pull from one day last week:
Military spouse friends gather with their kids to play on a day off from school. That morning, news flickered across their Facebook newsfeeds that a friend had been killed in Afghanistan leaving behind a wife and young children. Camera pans to their tight circle of chairs, hushed voices, and finally to the women whose talk is interrupted by a text message. It’s from another military spouse. She has received news that her husband who is deployed survived an attack. She was in the middle of Kindergarten orientation when the call came. The guy next to her husband was blown up. His legs may be gone. One mom pulls a granola bar out of her purse. Their discussion turns to the upcoming nine month deployment their husbands leave for on Monday. Most sit up straighter and say everything will be fine. Camera pans away. They leave the falling apart for the middle of the night when they find themselves alone in bed with their own thoughts hoping the kids don’t wake up with fevers.
Beloved. Supported. Championed. The military family has become the darling of reality television along with a sanitized version of our service members’ lives. The love we’re supposed to feel from the networks quantified by the interest in showing our existence. But not by showing our reality.
Because if the entire truth was shown, instead of just pictures of daddy kissing baby for the first time, you’d get to see the young man who is failing in school because he couldn’t come to grips with a father who is struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Or the wife who is struggling with depression and is considering suicide. Veterans without homes. Soldiers who return to broken families. And the spouses, girlfriends, and parents who work to keep a semi-normal life in a very unpredictable existence.
Military families are resilient. We are proud and strong. We don’t like to let the cracks show. Maybe that’s why many military families appreciate being remembered with the shows that make the eight o’clock slot instead of showcasing the drama we have become so used to in our own world; shouldering the burden is kind of our thing.
So I’ll speak for myself when I say that, while the networks sell our daily lives, I hope the public will not be duped by celebrities jumping out of a helicopter with no real bullets coming or wives in high heels cheering on their husbands’ training. We don’t air our struggles and ask for pity regarding our troubles but the public should be exposed to the true, unglamorous sacrifices our service members and their families’ make. Not the staged glory.
Viewers may be drawn to visions of grand homecomings, breathtaking training, or wives in cute dresses and big smiles, but Americans also need to know the gritty reality our military service members and families face. And start tuning into a forgotten program:
The war in Afghanistan.
Even if you hear it may be cancelled, I understand there are a few spin-offs being planned starring our service members and their families for many years to come. I hope you’ll check this old favorite out because, unlike the reality shows that are on now, as fewer viewers click into the show, the longer the program will be on the air.
This is our reality:
Kristina Kaufmann, Contributor
12/02/2015 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2016
The American public hears stories about the devastating impact that mental wounds of war can have on a combat veteran, and how far too often, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is failing them.
We now have an entire generation of military families who know nothing but war. An estimated 30-35% of the 2.7 million troops who have deployed since 9/11 are struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or substance abuse. These are conditions known to affect entire families, and can derail the mental health and development of the over two million children who have had a parent deployed over the past 14 years.
A growing body of evidence indicates that some children of military families — especially those living in PTS/TBI households — have been negatively affected by their parent’s deployments. Research conducted by the University of Southern California found that military connected adolescents have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts than their civilian counterparts, and other studies indicate that military spouses — particularly those serving as caregivers to support their wounded veterans — are more at risk to suffer mental health problems.
To make matters worse, in most cases spouses and children of the over 60% of post 9/11 troops who have left active duty, are not eligible for healthcare from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). No one federal agency is held accountable, and there is no coordinated system to respond to the needs of these families. In fact, for the most part they are invisible to the systems that could be providing them services. While the Department of Defense (DOD) has been directed by Congress to start tracking suicides among active duty family members, the VA has no such mandate to track family members once they leave active duty.
We, as a nation, are failing these families, many of whom feel abandoned by the country their loved ones fought to protect. Helping these families isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s a public health concern. RAND estimates that the lost productivity among post 9/11 caregivers (mostly young wives) will confer a societal cost of almost 6 billion dollars. And the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress reports that poverty, addiction and mental illness are just some of the conditions that have their roots in untreated childhood traumatic stress.
What can be done?
Children and Family Futures, a California based advocacy organization, recommends the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) expand their research program to better assess the behavioral health needs of veteran children. Currently, the bulk of research focuses on active duty families, who have far better access to care. In addition, mental health conditions related to wartime service sometimes take years to manifest, which means hundreds of thousands of veteran family members are at risk of falling through the cracks.
Second, an estimated 350,000 veteran families lack health insurance. This requires a targeted outreach campaign — at both the federal and local levels — to educate and enroll these families in health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Third, the VA must do more to identify and help these families. Currently, there are no screening or assessment protocols used to determine the service needs of veteran caregivers or children. The VA is struggling to keep up with the growing demand in mental health services for veterans, and does not have the capacity (or congressional authority) to provide behavioral health support for family members. But, they can certainly do a far better job of ensuring warm hand-offs to community based mental health agencies.
The fact is, the majority of veteran families in need of behavioral health care will be seen by community based organizations. These agencies will require the funding, cultural competency and education in evidence based practices to expand their capacity and effectively serve veteran families in crisis. The VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, which grants $300 million dollars a year to community based organizations, has been widely credited for helping to drastically reduce veteran homelessness. This same model can be used to support community based behavioral health care for veterans and their families.
The Yellow Ribbon Program’s have faded and the welcome home parades are a distant memory. But there’s a price to pay for outsourcing our national defense to less than one percent of the population over 14 years of war. This isn’t a military problem. It belongs to all of us.
Alex’s mom, Jami, and her remaining son are now getting the counseling they need through a local veterans center. As painful as it is for her to speak openly about her tragic losses, she is committed to raising awareness. It’s too late for Alex, but we can still save hundreds of thousands of families damaged by war, and give them a chance to become whole again.