Before the star-studded opening of the Invictus Games in Orlando on Sunday night, former President George W. Bush and Prince Harry tackled the issue of mental health, calling for an end to the stigma surrounding diagnosis and treatment of these medical conditions.
At the Symposium of Invisible Wounds sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, Prince Harry urged the public to reject any notion that veterans are "ticking time bombs" and instead embrace them in the workplace and communities.
"If I ran a business, I would want individuals like this … I'd want them for what they stand for, for the training they've had," Harry said. "You probably shouldn't be worrying about having these people in your office. The problem is if you don't grab these guys now, there's not going to be any of them left [to hire]."
Harry created the Invictus Games in London in 2014 to spotlight the capabilities and achievements of injured service members. The London games, he said, "smashed the sigma around physical wounds" and he hopes the Orlando games would do the same for mental health injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and combat-related depression.
"The stigma — not just in the military but across the world — the stigma is a big issue. I don't have all the answers, but just being able to talk about it early on is a big deal," Harry said.
Bush, the games' honorary chairman, established the Bush Institute Military Service Initiative to support troops transitioning from the military. The former president has lobbied the medical community to drop the term "disorder" from PTSD, and on Sunday, used the forum as a platform to continue pressing for the change.
According to Bush, the term "disorder" perpetuates the stigma.
"We don't view [post-traumatic stress] as a disorder. We view it as an injury. If [a troop] has an injury, he thinks, 'I can get this fixed.' If he thinks he has a disorder, he'll think, 'People will shun me. I'm not going to tell my commanders because they will treat me differently.' "
The Invictus Games are taking place this week in Orlando. More than 500 athletes from 15 countries, including 115 from the United States and 110 from the United Kingdom, are competing in 10 events.
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro is competing in shot put, discus, javelin and cycling. Sitting next to his former commander-in-chief during the symposium on Sunday, Del Toro, who was burned over 80 percent of his body in an IED explosion in 2005, discussed the difficulties veterans face finding quality mental health treatment.
"For veterans who live in bum f***," Del Toro said, dropping an expletive to the great amusement of the former president, "it's a lot harder to get support. It really depends on what hospitals are available. And it's probably harder on families because they are the ones dealing with you every day."
Royal Marine veteran J.J. Chalmers said it is incumbent on veterans to help each other.
"The best chances we have of addressing this issue is if it comes from the guys themselves. We are taught from Day 1, you look after each other. You have the buddy system, and that should not stop — ever," Chalmers said.
The Invictus Games run through Thursday. In a grand kickoff on Sunday, first lady Michelle Obama was joined by Morgan Freeman, James Blunt, a former captain in the British Army, opera singer Laura Wright and the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, to celebrate the arrival of the athletes.
Harry said the games are an opportunity to help veterans transition.
"What I love about America is 'thank you for your service.' It's an amazing foundation. But we've gotten to the point where we need to move beyond that. We need to open our doors to these amazing individuals," Harry said.
The games are being televised on various ESPN channels. A complete lineup can be found here.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.