Unwanted Heroes

Many unwanted heroes defend our nation and fight its wars—right or wrong. When America’s leaders declare wars based on lies (for example: Vietnam and Iraq) or the truth (World War I, II, Afghanistan and Korea), unwanted heroes do the fighting and pay the price.

On the side of a bus at the VA medical clinic that I go to, it says, “All gave some; some gave all.” I have a credit card sized VA Department of Veterans Affairs ID card.  It says below my photo: “Service Connected.” That means I have a disability connected to my service in Vietnam in 1966 when I was serving in the US Marines.

What is the price many unwanted heroes pay for trusting their leaders?

This post has the same title of a novel that was recently released, and I had the privilege of editing Unwanted Heroes by Alon Shalev.

In Unwanted Heroes, Shalev brings together a long suffering, battle weary Chinese American Vietnam veteran suffering from the trauma of PTSD and an idealistic and somewhat pretentious young Englishmen, who both share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine.

Alon Shalev, the author, grew up in London, and has been a political activist since his early teens. He strives through his writing to highlight social and political injustice and to inspire action for change.

Moving to Israel, he helped establish a kibbutz where he lived for 20 years and served in the Israeli army.

Shalev then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and fell hopelessly in love with this unique city. Being new to the US, however, he was shocked to see so many war veterans on the streets. He regularly volunteers at initiatives such as Project Homeless Connect and the San Francisco Food Bank where he meets and talks with war veterans. These experiences lend authenticity to the novel.

In fact, according to NIH (the National Institute of Health) Medline Plus, “PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults” … and “members of the military exposed to war/combat and other groups at high risk for trauma exposure are at risk for developing PTSD.

“Among veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD and mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI) are often linked and their symptoms may overlap. Blast waves from explosions can cause TBI, rattling the brain inside the skull.

“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts almost 31% of Vietnam veterans; as many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans; 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20% of Iraqi war veterans.”

NIH says, “PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders.”

In addition, “between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans are homeless at some time during the year, and on any given night, more than 300,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters in the US. … About 33% of homeless males in the US are veterans and veterans are twice as likely as other Americans to become chronically homeless. One of the primary causes of homelessness among veterans is combat-related mental health issues and disability.

The incident of PTSD and suicide rates among veterans is also climbing and 45% of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness including PTSD. Source: Veterans Inc.org

The New York Times reported, “Suicide rates of military personnel and combat veterans have risen sharply since 2005, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified. Recently, the Pentagon established a Defense Suicide Prevention Office.”

“The CDC Vietnam Experience Study Mortality Assessment showed that during the first 5 years after discharge, deaths from suicide were 1.7 times more likely among Vietnam veterans than non-Vietnam veterans. …

Why? “The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter.” Source: History.com – Statistics about the Vietnam War

I did not seek help for my PTSD for thirty-eight years, because I did not know the VA offered counseling.

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4 thoughts on “Unwanted Heroes

  1. This is a very thought-provoking article and I thank you for writing it.

    I am currently researching PTSD and its effects upon the Allied soldiers during the Battle for Normandy, 1944. One of the most startling anomalies I have unearthed is how the Royal Army Medical Corps identified and campaigned against their own army’s indifference to PTSD, even prior to 1944. Their official history, published in 1946, begins its first page by launching a full-on attack against the weaknesses in the British Army’s command structure on this matter.

    When so much has been known for so long about PTSD, it remains puzzling that so little is done to avoid, reduce and limit its onset and deal with its aftermath. Pretty much the same words written by me now that were written in 1946 by some very resolute people in the RAMC, who cited evidence from the 1914-1918 war.

    The battle of perceptions continues.

    • PBS’s Frontline did a show on this topic.


      Other terms for PTSD were “Soldier’s Heart” and Shell Shock” …

      And the term “Soldier’s Heart” was first coined in the post Civil War era when troops were returning from Civil War combat. Even that far back there were people trying to explain what it was and what caused it. In addition, I understand that there are historical reports of battle-related stress that appear as early as the 6th century BC.

      I just found this book on the topic: “Shell Shock to PTSD, Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War.”

      In fact, early in 1978 the term PTSD was first used and was formally recognized in 1980. No help for me and most Vietnam Vets until much later—I returned from Vietnam in December 1966.

      I also found this interesting piece on the subject that concludes: “The diagnosis of PTSD emerged at this time, officially being adopted in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association. Micale says that many of the doctors who constructed the diagnosis were actually anti-Vietnam-war psychiatrists who saw the sickness as being unique to what they considered a “uniquely sick war.” But they were blind historically, he says. Today, doctors see PTSD in the context of both earlier wars and current conflicts.

      “What’s more, the military today has gone beyond simply offering treatment programs. “They also have campaigns to convince soldiers and their families that PTSD is for real,” Micale adds. “They are trying to remove the stigma, for it’s natural to be shaken if you see combat. The message is to know what’s happening to your body and mind and not to feel alone or ashamed of what is, after all, a very human response.”

      Source: http://www.las.illinois.edu/news/2009/ptsd/

  2. It is natural to be shaken if you see or are engaged in trauma – as you point out.

    But the experiences of soldiers, so often forming an isolated social group who can thereby help in clinical studies, seem not to have helped increase either the creation of avoidance techniques nor the understanding by society of the severity and frequency of the condition.

    But I am still baffled by what appears such a slow and short-sighted approach to combating a condition so prevalent in society.

    From the acknowledgement that Vets may be suffering the condition, it is then a small step to consider that, under certain circumstances, other sectors of society (police, medics, civilians) may also fall within both the causative environment and the condition.

    The process of developing avoidance strategies, acknowledgement of the condition and also efficient healing programs seems to be measured over centuries in a world where new cures are found within years for other conditions.

    It is inexcusable by any measure that you and other Vets were left unsupported. I suppose that this is my main point and I hope that I manage to convey this in my response.

    A truth unspoken is a lie that sleeps.

    • What you say that “it is then a small step to consider that, under certain circumstances, other sectors of society (police, medics, civilians) may also fall within both the causative environment and the condition” is happening. But slow as you say.


      “Like all victims of trauma, teachers can experience symptoms of PTSD in different ways. Some have nightmares that can linger for years. Some rely on medication to get through their day. Others suffer from such severe anxiety that they cannot step foot back inside the school where they were attacked. A few abandon teaching altogether.” …

      “Of the teachers that I have counseled over the years who have been assaulted, 100 percent of them have satisfied diagnostic criteria for PTSD,” said Houston, who has worked with about half a dozen Chicago public school teachers to overcome symptoms of PTSD.”

      And then there is this one:

      Teresa McIntyre, a psychology research professor at the University of Houston that said, “Teachers don’t have one or two traumatic events; it’s a chronic daily stress that accumulates over days and months and years. It’s pretty equivalent in other high-risk occupations.”

      In a pilot study conducted last year of 50 teachers in four Houston-area middle schools, Ms. McIntyre found as many as one in three teachers in the Houston district were “significantly stressed,” with symptoms ranging from concentration problems, fatigue and sleep problems.

      Or this one from the CBS evening news about cops dealing with PTSD face stigma, lack of resources:


      “Across the country, there’s growing concern for police involved in shootings, even when they are not physically hurt. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but few get help dealing with it.”

      And for firefighters:


      “Studies have found that anywhere between approximately 7% and 37% of firefighters meet criteria for a current diagnosis of PTSD.”

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