Sandy Hook Shows Our Service Men and Women Deserve Better Mental Health Care

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora, Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary. My hometown, too. These are just a very short list of shootings and attempted mass-shootings perpetrated by mentally ill persons in the U.S. The most recent shooting in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary has stimulated a very significant reaction throughout the national conscience.

How could this have happened? What can we as a country do to prevent this? Most will say limiting access to military style weaponry will be the only solution. But there is another common element to these horrific acts other than guns: poor mental health among the perpetrators. These shootings underscore the need to help those with psychological problems and disorders to get better treatment.

Our service members are one particular population for whom our nation hasn’t done enough. And with an estimated prevalence rate of 18% for our 2.4 million service members who’ve deployed returning home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), combat stress, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other issues — a number larger than the population of New Orleans — this group needs a lot of assistance.

One important thing to consider in the conversation about “limiting or preventing gun deaths” is the important fact the majority of shootings aren’t the ones described above or the street violence we tend to focus on. They are self-inflicted— suicide. And 18 veteransalready commit suicide every day. To provide even more context, more soldiers die from suicide than combat. 

It should also be noted that shameful stereotypes exist concerning our service members and veterans, which in some ways might prevent our nation from embracing this very real issue. The "ticking time bomb” or “crazy veteran” clichés are very much alive, and even spread about by the news and entertainment media, too. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from many civilians – they want to help but don’t know how. At the same time, some of them I’ve talked to have met a few of these men who’ve been trained to be violent and deadly and been afraid of them before.

Certainly, the symptoms of soldiers suffering from PTSD might include reliving a traumatic event, flashbacks, and hyper-arousal or vigilance. From combat veterans, those symptoms might be seen in scary displays. But almost all of the service members who’ve served honorably overseas have come home and remained peaceful and law-abiding citizens. They have become outstanding parents, teachers, emergency officials, businessmen, doctors, artists, thought leaders, and even presidents, representing their service very well in every facet of our society.

Currently, the bureaucracy of military medicine isn’t doing enough to treat our service members or veterans. Veteran Affairs facilities across the country have been inundated with many of these younger service members (while still also taking care of Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, and other vets) seeking treatment, and oftentimes that treatment is simply a quick 5-minute interview by a medical official which results in the rubber stamp of “PTSD” with a doling out of medication for nightmares and anxiety and a referral to group counseling with apathetic, disinterested session leaders. And for service members on active duty, they receive similarly routine health care, which doesn’t seek to help them after they leave the hospital.

I have learned from my experiences in dealing with combat stress, that there is no one simple solution for every sufferer. And the treatment has to be holistic.

Enter NICoE. NICoE stands for the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, and is, of course, this big gaudy name. But all you need to know is this is the platform that gets it right. NICoE’s state-of-the-art research facility and campus, built entirely through donations from the American people, stands alongside the main military hospital at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda, MD. They’ve already broken ground in other places, too, with plans to build 9 satellite centers at other bases.

At NICOE, service members who haven’t been reacting well to conventional treatments for PTSD arrive as a group each week. They stay at a nearby Fisher House and are encouraged to bring their family with them to help support them through their treatment. Getting well becomes their new mission, and their entire time there is focused to that goal. And it’s a personally tailored experience to the individual.

In a recent Fox News article, NICOE Deputy Director Dr. Thomas Degraba said, while at NICoE the patients “…Will have, in a four week period, over 104 encounters with our providers. That would equal approximately a year and a half to two years of encounters that [they] would get in a regular outpatient basis.” And that one-on-one attention allows the service members to seek out the therapies that work best for them — whether it be music therapy, making masks or painting, helping train service dogs, acupuncture, firearms simulators (to help determine a service member’s overall physical and psychological health), or even expressive and creative writing. All of this is designed to help them overcome their trauma — to help them own their stories.

But it’s not all just alternative therapies that they can’t find anywhere else in military medicine — there’s also hard science and research going on there that optimizes not just the service member’s health care experience while there (for instance, NICoE has anMRI specifically designed to study patients with TBI), but will also serve to provide the data and results-based findings that will enable this center to spearhead even more mental health care initiatives for service members and veterans in the future.

Given that this whole operation costs the taxpayers next to nothing, and has been doing so well, Americans and our leaders should champion these NICoEs for our service members and hopefully, one day, for our veterans too.