At Ease

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, war, endings and beginnings

Vietnam War veteran and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey will be in Omaha Jan. 31 to salute At Ease, an Omaha program providing confidential behavioral health services to active duty military personnel and family members. Founded by Omaha advertising executive Scott Anderson, At Ease is administered by Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Kerrey, whose embattled New School (New York) presidency ended January 1, is the featured speaker for the At Ease benefit luncheon at Qwest Center Omaha. Reports estimate up to one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — some 300,000 individuals — suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Controversy over strict U.S. Veterans Administration guidelines for PTSD claims has led to new rules that lessen diagnostic requirements and streamline benefits processing. Last summer Kerrey, a board member with the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America (IAVA), publicly criticized a VA policy banning its physicians from recommending medical marijuana to patients. “There are doctors who are strongly of the view that marijuana prescribed and monitored can be beneficial for a number of physical and mental conditions,” he says. “And in those states where medical marijuana is legal I think the VA should allow it. “If a doctor can prescribe medical marijuana for somebody who’s not a veteran, it doesn’t seem to me to be right for that doctor not to be able to prescribe it for a veteran.” Kerrey, speaking by phone, says he keeps fairly close tabs on veterans’ affairs. “I would say I stay more current on veterans health and veterans issues than I do on other issues. I’ve made a few calls on the Veterans Bill of Rights that (Sen.) Jim Webb pushed. I get called from time to time to help people that are having problems. It’s much harder to help somebody when you’re not holding the power of a senate office or a governor’s office.” Kerrey strongly advocates the work of IAVA, founded in 2004 by Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army First Lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq. “It’s a very good organization for any Iraq or Afghan veteran that’s looking for somebody they can talk to,” says Kerrey. “They’re very careful not to duplicate what the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and the (American) Legion are doing. “They don’t have buildings, they just have basically networks of Iraq and Afghan veterans who are trying to help each other.” He suggests the number of veterans needing help for PTSD is so vast that only a combined public-private initiative can adequately address the problem. “You start off with an estimate of 300,000 PTSD sufferers from Iraq and Afghanistan and multiply by it two or three, depending on how many family members are going to be affected, and you’re talking about maybe a million people,” he says. “This is a difficult thing for the Veterans Administration or other government entities to handle all by themselves. Non-governmental efforts are typically supplemental — all by themselves they’re not going to get the job done (either).” He views At Ease as a non-governmental response that can help address problems at the local level. “It’s hard to figure out what to do for a million, but if you’re talking about 50 or 60 or a 100 or just one, there’s something you can do, and that’s what At Ease is doing through Lutheran Family Services. It’s a great example of how when you say, ‘I’d like to do something to help,’ there are venues, there are ways to help. It’s a terrific story.” His remarks at the fundraiser will make that very point. “My focus will be on how possible it is for a single individual, in this case Scott Anderson, a nonmilitary citizen with no direct contact with PTSD, to do something. And his program saved lives, it’s made lives better.” In this belt-tightening era, Kerrey says nonprofit-volunteer efforts can make an especially vital impact. “We hear so much about things unique to America that there’s a tendency at times to be skeptical. But our nation’s volunteer, not-for-profit efforts are unique in the world. The financial and volunteer time giving that occurs is a real source of strength that doesn’t show up on economic analyses,” he says, adding that veterans’ problems are “not going to be made easier if in a moment of budget cuts we cut back on mental health services.” Attitudes about mental health disorders are much different now than when he returned from combat in Vietnam, where he led a Navy SEAL team. Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor. Thankfully, he says, the stigma of PTSD is not what it used to be. “First of all, I think mental illness is seen much differently today — much more mainstream, much more comparable to physical illness. I think you’d probably have a hard time finding somebody in Nebraska that doesn’t have somebody who’s experienced a trauma producing some kind of disability. “I would say the mental trauma is in a demonstrable way more disabling than the physical trauma. And the two can be connected. I think generally today people accept that. I’m sure there’s still a lot of people who think of PTSD as connected to Vietnam but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. The rule is it’s seen more broadly as a condition that can affect anybody, both in and out of combat.” Repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghan, he says, have added new stressors for “guys rotating in and out multiple times. It’s one thing to go over your first time and wonder whether or not an IED is going to take you out, but to have to go over a second, a third, a fourth (time) — at some point it has to harden you when you get home. It has to have a terrible impact on you.” He believes whatever care veterans receive must be personal and consistent. “The most important thing is sustained support because what you need is somebody you can call when you’re having trouble,” he says. Although he never suffered PTSD, he dealt with losing part of a leg and adjusting to a prosthesis. He endured physical pain and memory-induced night sweats. He says while recovering from his injuries “some of the most important things given to me were by volunteers who would just come in and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It’s extremely important for another human being to be there and demonstrate they care enough about you to spend time with you.” On other topics, Kerrey says the recent Tucson shooting may hold cautionary lessons. Alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner made threats against his target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat sharply criticized by the right. Kerrey says while rhetoric is part of this society’s free exchange of ideas, labeling an elected official a danger may trigger an unstable person to act violently. Meanwhile, Kerrey, who was to have remained New School president through July, has given way to David Van Zandt. Kerrey remains affiliated with the school. His fate as president was sealed when senior faculty returned a 2009 no-confidence vote. Until last summer Kerrey had been in negotiations with the Motion Picture Association of America to become the trade group’s president. About his New School experience, he says, “I’m grateful for the chance to have done it. I learned a lot. I got a lot done. I made a lot of friends.” He also ran afoul of vocal student-faculty blocs. His well-known political skills failed him in the end. “I certainly didn’t expect my term as university president was going to be free of situations where something was going to be upsetting. I was not an altogether cooperative student when I went to the University of Nebraska. I’ve seen university presidents hounded, harassed, criticized before I became one, so it didn’t really surprise me.” With the MPAA no longer courting him, Kerrey says he’s looking to do “something in public service — something I think is not going to get done unless I do it,” adding, “It’s much more likely I’m going to be spending more time back there (Nebraska).”

posted at 07:50 pm
on Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

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