Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Column for March 16, 2014

ED PALM | Vets still facing the stigma

By Ed Palm
Friday, March 14, 2014 

Way back in 1979, the award-winning novelist and short-story writer Tim O’Brien published an article in Esquire magazine decrying the way in which Vietnam veterans were then being portrayed. “The typical Vietnam veteran is bonkers. Outright dangerous: a shellshocked, frazzle-brained, doped-out psycho.” That is what the movies and TV dramas of the day would have had us believe, O’Brien, himself a Vietnam veteran, complained.

O’Brien pointed to films such as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Coming Home” as well as TV programs such as “Kojak” and “The Streets of San Francisco” as fostering this stereotype of Vietnam veterans as irredeemably disturbed and haunted by the horrors they had witnessed and helped to create. “Some guys never came home. You know what I mean?” an ironic friend of mine used to say, satirizing this popular suspicion of those who had seen combat.

I am concerned that the same stereotype is beginning to build regarding the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the story lines on the critically acclaimed NBC intergenerational series “Parenthood” is a case in point.

Twenty-something Amber falls in love with Ryan, an Afghanistan veteran. The course of their true love is anything but smooth. Amber’s mother, from the start, is instinctivelyly suspicious of Ryan. Ryan is shown repeatedly popping pills for anxiety. He gets fired from the job that Amber’s uncle gives him. He gets drunk and wrecks Amber’s car. On two separate occasions he overreacts to slight provocations and severely beats the men who set him off. In the end, he throws in the towel on civilian life and re-enlists, breaking Amber’s heart.

And, spoiler alert: What recently released highflying film’s denouement reveals that two disturbed Iraq War veterans are behind all the mayhem?

That film and the Amber-Ryan storyline on “Parenthood,” of course, are fiction, and both can be readily dismissed as just fictional exaggerations. But no less than TV’s pop psychologist Dr. Phil has done his best to validate the psycho-veteran stereotype in real life. His April 19, 2012, show, titled “From Heroes to Monsters,” detailed how PTSD had wrecked the marriages and lives of three combat veterans. “Damaged goods” was how Dr. Phil characterized these veterans. The show drew bitter protest from veterans and mental health professionals.

In his blog, Dr. Phil acknowledged unintentionally offending the veterans’ community and reported that the show had been retitled as “Heroes in Pain.” But he stopped short of apologizing and claimed credit for calling “attention to the challenges our returning soldiers face, including PTSD.”

As a Vietnam veteran myself, I may be overly sensitive to such portrayals of veterans as troubled losers unable to readjust to life “back in the World,” as we used to refer to the States. In that 1979 article, O’Brien established that the great majority of Vietnam veterans managed to fit back in and to get on with their lives. Anyone who has been in, or near, combat is haunted by his or her share of demons, but most manage to keep them in check, if not to exorcise them completely.
Accordingly, I found myself more than a little ambivalent at the news that Kitsap County would be establishing a Veterans Drug Court. I do support treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenses involving substance abuse. On the other hand, I’ve always resented any insinuation that veterans in general are pathetic losers. I worried that this well-intentioned initiative would reinforce the popular suspicion of veterans as prone to criminal activity through drug- or alcohol-dependency.

Now that our Veterans Drug Court has been in operation for a year, I decided it was time to see for myself if the benefits outweigh my concerns. The court is presided over by Superior Court Judge Jay Roof. Sessions are held every Friday, beginning at 11:30, in the Kitsap County Courthouse in Port Orchard.

On the day I went, 13 program members, ranging in age from the early twenties to advanced middle age, were on the docket. Of the 13, only two members were dropped from the program for backsliding into alcohol or drug abuse. The others were doing well and seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the counseling and support they were getting. I came away impressed with the rapport Judge Roof had established with the group and with his fatherly sympathy and concern for their success.

Still, I worry that the need for a separate Veterans Court does reinforce the popular image of veterans as damaged goods. It’s only a matter of time, I predict, before we hear people expressing the same sort of mealy-mouthed sentiment we heard from liberals in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement: “I support our veterans. Some of my best friends are veterans. I just wouldn’t want my sister or daughter to marry one.”

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