“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 firstname.lastname@example.org