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“Only the Best” for Those Who Serve Our Country

“Only the Best” for Those Who Serve Our Country

“Only the Best” for those Who Serve Our Country:
How the Broken Military-VA-Corporate-Legislative “Complex” Treats our Veterans

by Joseph Bobrow

The Fantasy of the Teflon Soldier

The Army spent from $100M-$240M (estimates vary) on an unproven “resilience” program, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), whose complete lack of efficacy is demonstrated by the epidemic of suicides that only seems to rise more alarmingly with time. Cutting away the packaging, the core message, derived from ‘positive’ psychology, is “look to the bright side.”

Resilience here is the dream of creating a Teflon soldier and Teflon families and kids back on the homefront, able to go through 3, 4, 5 and more deployments with nary an emotional scratch. Who needs to face moral injuries? Who needs to build safe spaces? Make the investment and take the time to create protective social support networks and build communities of healing and support? After meeting with leaders of CSF, I received a note saying that they liked what we did, but since theirs was a train the trainer approach, they “didn’t actually serve people directly.”

The Department of Defense (DoD) is eager to use any and all “holistic” techniques, including mindfulness training, to offset the effects of military service, to find the silver bullet that promises to eliminate the impacts of trauma. Despite many devoted individual care providers, the deeper work of healing, individual and collective, is not the interest of most government funders and programs.

One military service member per day commits suicide. At least 900 suicide prevention programs in the military have been unable to stem the tide. Theirs has primarily been a “whack-a-mole,” uncoordinated approach that ignores the all-important deeper levels of anguish.

Veterans as Pawns on Capitol Hill

The shortcomings and scandals in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are legend. The investigative work of Aaron Glanz and the class action lawsuits in federal court are well documented.  The organization is so thoroughly broken that the work of many devoted care providers, and the occasional innovative program, are sometimes overlooked. Every day 22 veterans commit suicide. Yet a highly placed whistleblower recently reported that the VA ignored data that could have helped suicidal veterans. And data that could help veterans ill with bronchitis and asthma thought to be linked to “burn pits” in Iraq.

The Veterans Affairs Department’s backlog of disability claims passed the 900,000 mark this week, confirming department’s inability to make a dent in the pile. It’s not unusual for injured veterans to have to wait from 1-2 years and more to get the care they need and adjudication on their injury claims.

Here’s an example of dysfunction-in-action: after years of trying to form a substantive partnership with the VA, it looked like we had made a breakthrough. After all, the Coming Home Project offered evidence-based services the VA did not, services the VA gladly and beneficially referred their patients and their caregivers to. After many near wins that didn’t pan out, a new VA leader was interested in Coming Home retreats for geographically dispersed vets and families and recommended that we work with a VA psychiatrist I knew who was both thoughtful and well connected within the VA nationally. He helped us craft a proposal he was sure would go through.

Months passed and my follow up emails and phone calls went unanswered. Finally I heard from him that, for the first time ever, a request of his had been denied by his boss. When I asked why, he fudged, but what was clear as day through the words, was that even he, like scores of others in the VA who were keen to partner, were scared to death of “getting in trouble.” I called the national leader and to my utter disbelief, she actually confirmed his story and said nothing could be done.

In brief, there was a local program favored by a powerful legislator who had caused problems for the VA. They had to watch their step about partnering with another group. Such dysfunction boggled my mind. Since then, most legislators I’ve encountered and followed, and some are smart and well meaning, tend to be interested in programs that lift their profiles regionally and so help them with re-election.

Hypocrisy: Only the “Best” for our Veterans

Hundreds are scurrying around trying to find the silver bullet to stem the tide of military and veteran suicides, but few are examining deeply the extensive wounds of war and the broken, silo-based systems of care that mirror the fragmentation of veterans and service members’ psyches and relationships. They are either part of a system where ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,’ or they are mired in isolative dysfunction, chronically refusing to communicate and partner with one another, as the VA and DoD should, to facilitate the best transition home, reintegration and healing of our troops.

The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) is a joint VA-DoD congressionally mandated and funded organization whose sole mission is to develop and identify the very best practices and disseminate them. After years of being urged to do so, they conducted a thorough study of all reintegration programs and Coming Home was the only one that met all their key criteria (integrating psychological, behavioral, social-family and spiritual dimensions) and was backed by research published in a peer reviewed journal (link). To my amazement, no VA, DoD or Congressional representative had even heard of the study, although they had been clamoring for just this information from the DCoE, which most of them scorned for its inefficiency. When the report was brought to their attention, however, they disparaged or completely ignored it.

While Coming Home has been named a leading reintegration practice by DCoE, and even though the VA and DoD have referred hundreds to our programs, sustainable funding has not been forth coming. So much for getting the best services to our veterans and families. It’s easy to get into war, tough to get out, and seemingly impossible to take care of our wounded.


Joseph Bobrow is a Zen master, psychoanalyst, and community organizer. For 40 years he has been integrating Buddhist mindfulness and western psychology to create healing environments. In 2006, with therapists, chaplains, vets, and family members, he founded the Coming Home Project, a non-denominational community service of Deep Streams Institute. Since 2007, the Coming Home Project has helped 3,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, service members, their families and their caregivers from 45 states transform the traumas of war, reintegrate, and enjoy genuine wellbeing. A Dharma heir of Robert Aitken Roshi, Joseph joined BPP shortly after its inception, building an interfaith coalition and helping organize the first Hiroshima Day commemoration on Maui. Later, he provided consultation to the BPF Board. Two summers living at Plum Village in the early 1980’s strengthened his conviction in the healing power of community. Joseph’s book, Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation, has received acclaim from Buddhist teachers and trauma researchers and therapists alike. He is working on a second book, Waking Up From War: How Our Veterans, Their Families, and Our Nation Heal The Unseen Wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is transmitting what he has learned over these four decades about trauma, mindfulness, awakening and healing with Turning Ghosts Into Ancestors, a workshop that distills these insights and weaves in pioneering research on post-traumatic growth from Coming Home retreats. To read more, check out Joe’s blog on Huffington Post. For information on new workshops, contact Joe at bobrow@deepstreams.org

Comments (7)

  • nathan

    Seems to me that the dysfunctional system for Vets is at least in part, broken by design. For all the propaganda about the heroics of soldiers and how valuable they are to the American public, the reality is more that their value is primarily in terms of profit for the elite and oppression for the rest of us. Why was the CSF funded at such an overinflated manner? Well, consider that it’s main architect, Martin Seligman, was a key player in Bush’s torture program. http://truth-out.org/news/item/250:the-dark-side-of-comprehensive-soldier-fitness Furthermore, of course they’re going to fund programs that help keep soldiers available for duty, no matter what the cost. Until they figure out a way to institute the draft again, maximizing those enlisted is going to be privileged over all else. Healing, living a good life after service, suicide prevention – none of this makes much money nor provides more cannon fodder. I actually am surprised it’s not worse than it currently is. With all the jingoistic propaganda spewed daily in the US, the government could easily get away with even more neglect and dysfunction. Because we “gotta stop those eevilll terrorists, ya know?”

    I’m impressed that so many everyday caregivers and healers are able to give support to vets despite all this. As long as capitalism and the military industrial complex rule the day, it’s going to be a slog at best.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    After reading several accounts (combining ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ narratives) of the myriad physical and mental problems Vietnam War veterans faced upon returning to the US and their subsequent dealings with VA agencies (‘administrations’) it’s appalling, incredible, nay, maddening, to see how little has in fact changed since that era. And even more so when one considers the range and scopes of protests (against inadequate or ill-treatment, or even no treatment whatsoever) from that period, some of which appeared to initiate changes that benefited veterans, although in hindsight those appear to have been rather episodic and short-lived, disappearing alongside the media attention those protests garnered. Gerald Nicosia discussed in vivid and disturbing detail the experiences of not a few soldiers and the psychologists who struggled to help (‘treat’) them in his book, Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement (2001).

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Oops: “And even more so when one considers the range and target of protests (against inadequate or ill-treatment, or even no treatment whatsoever) from that period, some of which appeared to initiate changes that benefited veterans, although in hindsight those must have been rather episodic and short-lived, disappearing alongside the media attention those protests garnered.”

  • Jeff

    Wow, Joseph! The VA has sunk pretty low in the years since I worked there. I can see now why you feel like Sisyphus pushing against this rock-headed, self-serving bureaucracy to fund Coming Home Project’s vital work.

    Your “Coming All the Way Home” study clearly shows that CHP retreats are really helping a lot of vets get past the trauma of war and adjust to civilian life, though, as you mention, much larger randomized controlled trials will be needed to make confident recommendations for different groups of service members. Unfortunately, given our national austerity binge, it doesn’t seem likely that vets will be at the top of the list for treatment research and program development – no money left after spending trillions of dollars to bail out those poor, gambling-addicted bankers a few years ago!

    After scanning the DCoE’s “Review of Post-Deployment Reintegration” mentioned on the CHP website, it struck me that the DoD’s priorities are quite explicit: the Total Force Fitness concept, around which support services are based, is a “holistic mind-body view…designed to address the needs of a military that requires continuous performance, resilience and recovery.” Without going into a detailed analysis, it’s pretty obvious, as Nathan points out, that the program is focused on rehabilitating troops for redeployment to combat rather than healing as they leave the service altogether.

    This is entirely consistent with the character and function of the modern United States Armed Forces, the mailed fist of global capitalism’s most aggressive nation. Like every empire from Rome to Britain, ours recruits its professional soldiers from a huge pool of young people who are taught that our national pride, privilege, and security (tenuous though they may be) depend on keeping America “strong” and who, more compellingly, have little prospect of getting a good civilian job instead. Despite the twisted justifications by politicians that are dutifully broadcast by mass media, our wars are not fought to “defend democracy.” One simply has to look at the regimes that the US backs internationally to see that our aims are control of natural resources, labor, and political loyalty in strategically important regions of the world and not at all to foster true independence and self-determination. Although our enemies are by no means always virtuous, it is never permissible for a weak nation to challenge US dominance, especially if it attempts to protect the rights of its people over those of ExxonMobil. When political and economic destabilization and bribery don’t do the job, our troops are sent in to inflict shock and awe on the natives. It’s not personal, it’s just business.

    My experience with veterans tells me that wars since 1945 have led to increasingly severe psychological trauma in our warriors, partially because of the disconnect between patriotic lies and brutal reality. Unfortunately, as in any capitalist enterprise, these honest young men and women are treated quite shabbily once they have served their purpose. Just as life-sustaining services like Social Security and Medicare which American workers fought for and won decades ago are now threatened by drastic sequestration cuts, services for veterans who have protected national interests abroad are simply not worthwhile anymore.

    This interview has raised many crucial issues for progressive Buddhists: the pervasive violence of our system (against its intended victims as well as its enforcers), the root causes of this evil (generic human ignorance versus deception and discipline that are consciously imposed), and our most appropriate response (blame the soldiers? succor the wounded on “our” side but not “theirs?” disavow all use of force under any circumstance? organize resistance to US global terrorism?). Answering these questions by vigorous discussion and by active engagement with systemic oppression will define the relevance of Buddhism to the spiraling, interdependent crises in our country and the world. Will we be part of the problem or part of the solution? Thanks, Joseph, for bringing these matters to our attention.

  • Joseph Bobrow

    Yes, there is a difference between “force readiness,” DoD’s goal, and healing. One of those differences that really make a difference.

    I appreciate the openness of the BPF community to engaging with these issues and with the men, women and children whose lives are so impacted by war. I look forward to continuing dialogue. Thanks to Dawn and Katie from Turning Wheel Media, and to Mushim.

    In the meanwhile, I’m getting ready to hear Hugh Martin read from his new collection, The Stick Soldiers, this Thursday, 7:30 pm, at Mrs Dalloway’s Bookstore, 2904 College Ave.

  • Joseph Bobrow

    I also want to express my thanks to Kenji Liu, guest editor, for his help making this project happen.

  • John Allan

    Only the best…. yeah. Read -On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. The specific Training to overcome the human unwillingness to kill has been very, very effective with ‘prepredness to kill’ rate rising from 15 to 20 percent in WW2 to around 45 in Korea percent to up over 90 percent by Vietnam. SUPRISE – the PTST rate goes through the roof . Its not just the combat stress its the damage done by the training to mens humanity. Thats why the PTSD rate gets worse and worse….Because the training to kill has got better and better.

    from “on Killing’ ……”Studies of combat activity during the Napoleonic and Civil Wars revealed stirking statistics. Given the ability of the men, their proximity to the enemy, and the capacity of their weapons, the number of enemy soldiers hit should have been well over 50 percent, resulting in a killing rate of hundreds per minute. Instead, however, the hit rate was only one o two per minute. And a similar phenomenon occured during World War I: according to British Lieutenant George Roupell, the only way he could get his men to stop firing into the air was by drawing his sword, walking down the trench, “beating [them] on the backside and … telling them to fire low”.1 World War II fire rates were also remarkably low: historian and US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall reported that, during battle, the firing rate was a mere 15 to 20 percent; in other words, out of every hundred men engaged in a firefight, only fifteen to twenty actually used their weapons. And in Vietnam, for every enemy soldiers killed, more than fifty thousand bullets were fired.”

    With ‘better’ training to be willing to shoot and kill the armed service person KNOWS they are killing or wounding more or Know they are actually trying to kill. Unless one is a sociopath this eats a human up. Its a big natural taboo to go against and fries the nervous system and the heart and soul is wounded. The current crop of wars will produce more psychologically wounded service people than any other time in human history….because the training to override the human resistance to killing is so good. More vets killed themselves after Vietnam than the viet cong killed. If the military and politicians dont get their heads out of the dark hole they keep them in, a vast epidemic of mental health problems, including self slaughter will gather momentum. Its already moving.
    John Allan Australia

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