Two columns for the price of one, on the theme of life or death, and how to do both with dignity.
One: I frequently receive email from a regular reader, a smart man with definite opinions on everything from local and national politics to health care and science. He’s a self-described “windmill tilter,” but in the best possible way. Over the past few months, though, his emails have taken a painful and pain-filled turn.
His son, whose superiors in the U.S. Army once described him as “a soldier’s soldier,” had returned from combat in Iraq suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. And because a soldier’s soldier doesn’t complain (“Every soldier he knew who had asked for help for depression and PTSD had been ostracized and given less than honorable discharges,” the writer says), his son had turned to self-medicating with illegal drugs. And when his superiors caught on, they didn’t set out to help him, but to humiliate him.
The soldier, who is in his early 20s, was on his third suicide attempt, and the Army was dangling the threat of a general discharge over him – rather than an honorable one – which could impede his civilian life and prevent him from collecting veterans’ benefits. The writer reached out to Leon Panetta by emailing Sylvia Panetta.
Leon responded and began looking into the young man’s case, and while that’s great and good and sounds completely like something Panetta would do, he can’t do it for every soldier. And if the system were working properly, he wouldn’t have to. The writer asked to keep his name anonymous to prevent his son from being further stigmatized.
This week’s cover story (p. 16), by former Weekly staffer Rebecca Robinson, looks at the struggles veterans of this country’s most recent conflicts are facing since returning home. Their stories – of agonizing waits to receive benefits, of struggles with brain injuries and PTSD and near homelessness, and of feeling alienated from fellow veterans despite their shared sacrifices – come with a message: You are not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence.
I asked Anthony Swofford, the New York Times bestselling author of Jarhead, a memoir of his time as a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War, what advice he had to offer, and he had this to say: “If you have a friend or family member veteran who you think is in trouble, help them find help. I believe the V.A. is staffed with a lot of people who want to help vets, but the system can be problematic and frustrating for a veteran in need. If a veteran is in the system, make sure he goes to the Disabled American Veterans; they are the best advocates any injured veteran has.”
Swofford added: “Make sure your veteran makes it to his appointments. I have discovered that peer-to-peer help is essential to healing for many, many veterans, so find a vet help group.”
Two: On a final and personal note (because I promised my June 23 column would be the last mention of my mother’s death – and here I go already breaking that), I wanted to send a message of thanks to those of you who have emailed, sent Facebook messages, called, left voicemails or sent personal notes. One especially exuberant person tackled me outside the Cherry Bean to plant a kiss on my cheek – and to tell me a newspaper had never before made him cry.
Of the several dozen messages I received, only one took the perspective that my mother’s decision to die with dignity, and to die as well as possible on her own terms, was incorrect; I’m running that letter this week because the writer is entitled to her opinion, and because it leaves room for debate on the right to die.
Former Monterey County Herald Associate Editor Lewis Leader recently sent in a column by his friend Dan Morhaim, M.D. An emergency room physician, the House Deputy Majority Leader in the Maryland State Legislature and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Health, Morhaim recently wrote the book A Better End: Surviving (and Dying) on Your Own Terms in Today’s Modern Medical World, published by Hopkins University Press. For anyone facing end-of-life issues – and that’s really everyone – it’s a must-read. We’ll post his column online Thursday.
But perhaps my favorite message, also a letter I’m running this week, is from 99-year-old Salinas resident Alice Moser. She apologized for sending a letter the old-fashioned way (handwritten in elegant script, via U.S. mail) and said she hopes that when her time comes, her step-children will honor her “do not resuscitate” request. She also hopes that she and I will meet sometime.
I hope so too, Ms. Moser, on both counts.