Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
There has long been a misperception that strength of character determines physiological and psychological resiliency. This is a dangerous assumption, one that discourages many from seeking help. I know firsthand.
After my third and final deployment in Iraq, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, from which I had long suffered, became so debilitating that I needed help. But even while seeking treatment, I refused to acknowledge that I suffered from a mental illness. I felt shame and confusion, and that somehow my condition was the result of weakness.
The turning point for me came when a friend who also suffers debilitating effects of combat deployments, referred to us as "two broken old men."
Veterans must not be thought of in this way. Rather, they should be recognized as ordinary men and women who, because of their extraordinary and profound experiences, must now adapt to a "new normal."
PTSD and related conditions are not subjective character flaws; researchers have found fundamental changes in the brain that classify such conditions as biological disorders. In addition, many PTSD cases, like mine, can go undiagnosed and untreated for years. Some studies even suggest that some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to PTSD.
Last year, the Veterans Affairs Department reported that approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Many of those veterans had longstanding issues with PTSD and depression.
A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation suggested nearly 19 percent of returning service members from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan met criteria for PTSD and major depression. At the time, that meant 300,000 troops, a number that has gone up significantly since.
These numbers are not merely white noise. They are a tragedy. And the experiences of our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam, many of whom still suffer from PTSD 40 years after that war ended, foreshadow what the road ahead could look like for our newer veterans if we do not intervene right away.
We must do more than thank veterans for their service with parades and platitudes. We must do more than label these veterans with a pre-existing condition that could, under proposed health care changes, make it more difficult for them to seek all types of health care. PTSD is treatable, and we must make mental health care more accessible and encourage veterans to seek help.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to make this a reality. I received help at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center — that clinic, and others like it nationwide, provide free care to veterans as well as their families, who often suffer along with them. Services are available regardless of discharge status, which can benefit those who may have engaged in misconduct involving alcohol and/or drug use that may have been a form of self-medication.
If an American is willing to fight for their country and put their life in harm's way, he or she should be given the very best tools possible to be successful. Similarly, if a veteran is willing to fight for their mental health, he or she should also be given the best tools to achieve their goals, with no barriers and no labels.
PTSD is not a character flaw. And we are not broken.
Lamar Winslow, a former Marine Corps captain and a practicing civil rights attorney, served three tours of duty in Iraq in 2003, 2006, and 2007.