Veterans and Disabilities
By Ray Sitler
The American Soldier; many don’t view themselves as veterans because they didn’t see combat as some of their brothers-in-arms did, but either way they have earned the right of the title, Veteran. Our countrymen have seen many a war, be it in the forming of our nation or the shaping of the world as we know it today. We have sent our men and women to the snow-covered mountains of Europe, the heat swept deserts of Africa and now the rugged terrains of Iraq and Afghanistan. We have also lost our countrymen on the dirt of this nation as well when our nation was divided over the issue of slavery.
Our soldiers not only have died in the service of their country and their beliefs, but many have returned home, some with visible injuries and newfound disabilities. Others have been plagued with hidden disabilities, deep inside that take longer than some of the outward physical wounds of war to heal.
In this history of veterans and disabilities we will look at how our veterans were looked at by society and the government, how veterans of the past have dealt with the wounds of war and how the veterans of today are now being viewed and what is being done to help our current batch of warriors. Within that group of warriors is a segment of our society that up until the current War on Terror had not been seen, combat injured female soldiers. Another aspect we will look at is how the family unit is affected with the return of its newly disabled military member.
The prescribed text in the development of a course that is focused on veterans and disabilities was written by David A. Gerber titled Disabled Veterans in History. The text consists of writings documenting the treatment of the wounded soldier from ancient Greece through the American Civil War and into the 20th century. It doesn’t restrict itself to the American soldier, Gerber looked at the post World War I disabled soldiers in England and Europe specifically, and how they tried to reintegrate into the civilian populations of those countries.
Additional text that can be utilized are works by D.M. Kalten, Soldiers Disabled 1861-1922, which focuses on the Civil War soldier through the end of the First World War. It is a day by day account of history through the writings of those that lived in through the wages of war and the aftermath in the care of these wounded and disabled soldiers.
A history of the Civil War soldier wouldn’t be complete without the accounts of those that have lived through the struggles of war. A glimpse through the eyes of the poet Walt Whitman and his daily accounts of the Civil War and his struggle to document his experiences and those around him in his works published in 1865, titled Drum Taps.
When Miguel Reece, wrote The Disabled Veterans Story, he used narratives written through interviews with soldiers or the family member of a soldier, and documents the lives of the veterans and the affects that war had on them as well as their families. The works included in his book document the lives of soldiers from the Second World War through Afghanistan.
I also chose a work by Kayla Williams, Plenty of Time When We Get Home, which tells her story of how two soldiers find love and deal with their PTSD. It is different from other accounts as it deals with the struggles of two veterans that marry and have to deal with their disorders individually and together. Soldiers marrying is not an unheard-of occurrence, but in the age of allowing women to be assigned to combat units we will see more stories emerge that echo this narrative.
Also, we look at the films that depict the results of war and the wounds that were left behind. There are many stories of returning veterans that have been portrayed in films that address these wounds, The Deer Hunter which is a fictional story of three friends and how the Vietnam War affected the men differently, each with their own wounds or disabilities. Born on the Fourth of July, an autobiography written by Ron Kovic and adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone. The story documents the life of Kovic from childhood through the Vietnam War and his struggles with acceptance of his disability by his family, friends. We also get a glimpse at how the disabled veteran’s movement impacted the political landscape of our country upon the return of these veterans as they looked to be recognized as a growing population. Lastly, the film The Best Years of Our Lives, is another story told about three returning World War II veterans and how they integrated back into society.
The Ancient Warriors
The life of an injured soldier in ancient times had two possible outcomes – death from the wound itself and being left behind on the battlefield, or returning to the rear and entrusting their care to the surgeons of the time and surviving, sometimes left with wounds that would linger for years as was seen in Sophocles’ mythical story of Philoctetes, a Greek soldier injured during the Trojan War. Though the stories of such soldiers, depicted in plays of that time, had exaggerations made within them but there are underlying truths to these stories and the soldiers that were in these battles. The celebration of the returning soldier as well as support for those injured in the way of governmental pensions to help those that were too injured to support themselves seems to go back to that era. Did the telling of these stories shape societal views of how to treat the returning soldier, and if it did what happened in the Vietnam Era that soldiers were treated so differently?
Taking Care of the American Soldier
The history of the American soldier goes back to the early days of expansion of the boundaries of our nation. Prior to the American Revolution, states had their own militias, but in the summer of 1775 the Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army. With respect to the treatment of these soldiers, all of them were to receive some type of pension for a short time after the war whether they were injured, disabled or not. After much legislation by presidents that had served and witnessed the living conditions of the disabled veteran did pensions resume, but that wasn’t until 1818. There was much controversy related to the payment of those pensions, veterans felt they were forgotten, and the public felt they were governmental handouts. Society’s opinions about veterans deserving pension payments seemed to focus on how a veteran received their injury, not the extent of the injury as we see today. This view was not only before the Civil War but continued after as well.
Long term care of the veterans did not exist either, there were no facilities established like we have today. Care was provided for the disabled veteran by their family as well as financial support which was noted in the writing of Daniel Blackie as well as Gerber; family members took up where the military lacked and handled the care of the veteran and his injuries. This care was the responsibility of the family solely until the time of the Pension Reform Act of 1818 where some financial burden was lifted from the family.
In 1833 the Naval Asylum was built for injured naval personnel as the first care facility for disabled veterans. The U.S. Army followed suit but not until 1851, with the Soldiers Home being established. Neither was subsidized by the government, they were financed through a portion of sailor and soldier pensions, respectively.
The Civil War was a war that saw things that previous conflicts had not. There were many advancements in the medical field and how to treat injuries so there were many more soldiers that did not succumb to injuries on the battlefield as in previous wars. There was also advancement in the way injuries were delivered as well. New advancements in the design of weapons providing more accurate shots being fired and the use of rounds (bullets) made of softer metals which delivered more devastating injuries. It was estimated that there were over 60,000 amputees as a result of the war. This had a drastic effect on care, those that needed assistance were provided that care at hospitals in the north. The Confederate soldiers were not seen as veterans by the U.S. government until 1958, seven years after the last confirmed Confederate soldier had died. Because of their service in the Confederate Army not being recognized by the government, their care was solely provided through family and public donations as there was a level of respect that was felt towards the soldiers that fought for “Dixie”.
“For it was not only a matter of regional pride for southerners to take care
of the less fortunate brethren of a glorious cause” (Gerber pg. 212).
The great poet Walt Whitman immortalized the life and times of the Civil War in his collection of works in his book Drum Taps. Though Whitman did not serve as a soldier for the Union Army, he did visit the hospitals that cared for them. He even took up residency in Washington D.C. and stayed there for three years tending to the soldier’s needs, writing letters for those who couldn’t. One such poem, “The Dresser” told of the injuries he witnessed and tells of his part in caring for the wounded;
“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I
To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not
one do I miss;
An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied,
and fill’d again” (Whitman pg. 31).
His works also tell the stories of the families of these soldiers. “Come up from the Fields Father”, is about a family upon hearing of their son being wounded but alive and knowing inside he will not heal and will soon die from his injuries. A story heard all to often.
Whitman’s poems are not the only writings that tell the story of the disabled soldiers in a narrative form, in D.M. Kalten’s Soldiers Disabled, which is a collection of writings documenting what transpired during and after the Civil War in regards to the soldiers that were captured and injured on both sides. After the war ended the focus of the transcript within is on the care and the addressing of the needs of the veterans from prosthetic requests and pension benefits and the needs for more care facilities for those disabled. It is a good source of filling in the timeline between the start of the Civil War and the ending of World War I, and why additional changes in care was needed for the disabled veteran from those that witnessed the time.
The United States did not see major reform until after World War I, with the establishment of a federally funded health system which would eventually be known as the VA. Once again there was advancement in the way that injuries were received, and soldiers suffered from shell shock (TBI and what is now called PTSD) and injuries received from chemical weapons (mustard gas) such as respiratory conditions and blindness. Though a new focus of care was on rehabilitation and not on long term care and dependence. This was accomplished through vocational training and adaptive technology. Additional changes were made in the pension system that needed restructuring once again, the Great Depression was extremely hard on the veteran population and many became destitute and could not wait on the payment systems start date which was set to begin in 1945, and they marched on Washington to demand earlier payment which they did receive. One thing that did materialize from this was how Americans became more aware of the plight of the veterans and the hardships they faced.
Women in Battle
Women have always been a part of war, either as the wife left behind when the husband went off to fight, or as the nurse on the battlefield tending to the injured and dying. It is documented that the first woman that had fought on the battlefield was Deborah Sampson, disguised as a man, fought and was injured and eventually discharged. The first women that were members of the military entered during World War I, in a support role doing clerical support work in distant rear areas not near the waging wars.
In World War II the roles changed, and they were placed in field hospitals closer to the front to care for the injured. This role continued until the Gulf War and women began being assigned to forward units, side by side with men. The injuries that were seen only in male soldiers were now being seen on the female soldiers as well. Society, fighting for equality in peace time may not have seen or expected the ramifications associated with the quest for equality and the results of war and the disabilities that it left behind for the woman soldiers. Even the veteran groups that would visit the military hospitals weren’t prepared for the needs of these soldiers when they came with supplies for their personal care needs. It became a learning experience for all involved.
In Kayla Williams’ autobiography Plenty of Time When We Get Home, she gives the account of her time in the military; going off to Afghanistan and returning uninjured physically but suffering from PTSD and the process of her reintegrating back into life in the United States. In her story she as well as her husband who also suffered with PTSD needed to heal themselves so they could be there for each other. This type of narrative is important as I previously noted, will be occur more often with women being placed in forward units on the front line as well as being a spouse of a soldier in the same position.
Hollywood and the Veteran Story
The films that represent the scars of war and the toll that it took on our veterans do vary and the representation of the political times in our society also play a part in the depiction. Movie like The Best Years of Our Lives is a film of three different returning veterans, each trying to find their place in a society that has seen much change. During the war society went through a change in the roles of woman and the responsibilities they took on in the war effort. Many shed the homemaker image that was present prior to the war. These returning veterans not only needed to adjust to these new roles but the disabilities they returned with. In the film the character Homer Parrish, a bi-lateral amputee (both arms from the elbow down) was played by returning veteran Harold Russell. He had to not only deal with the injury and reintegrating back in society, alcoholism and the role of being dependent on another to assist him, a fiancée that was there for him not out of pity but out of love.
Though this was a fictional characterization it was a story that many returning veterans lived in real life. In Gerber’s text Disabled Veterans in History he noted that alcoholism was a major problem even in 1878 within the facilities that housed veterans. Many using the bottle to forget the pain of war, others to relieve the pain of their wounds.
This 1946 film came at a time our country still had the positive view on the war and why the United States had been involved in it. Hollywood tends to follow the political climate at the times they produce these stories of our soldiers, and it can be seen in their depictions.
We can see how the political atmosphere has an effect such as in the film The Deer Hunter, another fictional story, which again documenting the lives of three friends that go off to Vietnam. On returning, one disabled and needing to use a wheelchair, the second mentally broken by the war, and the third that feels the guilt of leaving his friend behind and now returning, where the view of the war has been soured in their small Pennsylvania town.
Ron Kovic’s story, Born on the Fourth of July, an autobiography that tells his story of growing up, joining the Marines and going off to a war that he felt strongly about, and then his return, disabled with a spinal injury into a world that didn’t want to accept him because of what he was, a veteran. Within this story we see how the treatment of those with disabilities were handled and cared for by the government through the VA hospitals, and how public opinion of the war had an effect on that treatment. His healing came through his advocate work for the disabled veterans of Vietnam War and the writing he did.
The treatment of the veterans varied greatly with regards to how society viewed the Vietnam War as compared to World War II. It was a war that was looked on as one we shouldn’t have been involved in so the treatment of veterans, injured or not, was much different than the wars that the country had been previously involved in.
Miguel Reece’s, A Disabled Veterans Story is a book that represents stories told to him by veterans and their families. There is a chapter called “A Witness of Society’s Transformation”, which depicts how the treatment has changed from the Vietnam War to today. From being spit on to being hugged, from being called a baby killer to being welcomed home by an airport full of applauding people. One disabling to the veteran, one helping with reintegration and acceptance. This chapter is a good representation of the things that occurred within the times noted in Born on the Fourth of July and how our soldiers are greeted when they return home today.
The different societal responses to war are affected by the way the conflicts have been portrayed in the media and in film. A course devoted to disabled veterans should include a focus on the film industries portrayal of the soldier and the wounds that war leaves behind, both physical and hidden.
Today’s Disabled Veterans
Another area of focus for a course on veterans and disability should cover the current situation in the world. This is an area of importance because of the impact that it has had on their individual lives, many current students haven’t lived in a time that the country hasn’t had its’ soldiers in harm’s way, and these soldiers are their family members, schoolmates, and neighbors. Understanding what these current soldiers are exposed to and the “baggage” they are returning home with would complete a course on this subject, if not be a self-contained course.
On August 2, 1990 the Persian Gulf War started in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein entered the country with his Royal Guard and overthrew the government. By early 1991 our forces were in place and a mere 17 days after the first sorties (bomb runs) had flown, the war was over. We continue to have American troops deployed in the area, as well as Afghanistan, which equates to 29 years of some military action taking place somewhere in that region of the world.
With any military deployment there are casualties and death and they are expected. What makes this war different than other wars is that in previous conflicts, either through a draft or volunteer enlistment, a soldier would be deployed for a given amount of time and then return home after satisfying their enlistment time. In the current War on Terror, because of its duration, we are witnessing multiple deployments of our soldiers to these areas of unrest. With multiple deployment’s, the expectation of injuries increases for these individuals as well as the likelihood of suffering symptoms of PTSD.
As with any war we have seen, the development of better ways to inflict injury and death still holds true. The use of civilian vehicles to a child’s toy loaded with explosives are just an example. Because of the sheer magnitude of an IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) explosive capabilities, we are seeing more devastating injuries in larger numbers, but due to better medical care and equipment worn by our troops, survivability is close to 90% for an injured soldier. Those that would have previously died from their wounds are now surviving with multiple disabilities, from amputations to severe TBI. Miguel Reece’s collection of stories has a chapter from a mother’s point of view on caring for her son, a disabled soldier with a severe TBI.
With such a high survivability rate we see a transition from burying the dead to caring for the disabled soldier. We are also seeing higher numbers of veterans completing suicide. These veterans are not only from the War on Terror era, but it includes those that were in Vietnam. It is estimated that 21 veterans a day complete suicide in the U.S.; such an alarming number that the VA and SAMSHA (Veterans Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) have embarked a national campaign called The Mayor’s Challenge, to address this issue.
As with any individual with a disability inclusion, acceptance, and understanding are needed to help halt these numbers as well as help reintegrate them back in to society. A focus on the initiatives that are being developed around the country through the VA and SAMSHA collaboration can shed light and provide an educational benefit towards understanding the veteran and the hidden disabilities that they suffer with.
What I have provided is a blueprint of a potential direction in which to design a course on veterans and disabilities. The use of statistical data provides quality information to build upon and understand the life of a soldier is better served with narrative writings as they are recorded on the battlefield like in Walt Whitman’s poems or directly after a deployment or an enlistment. Those narratives show the real horrors of war and the disabilities that these veterans have both physical and hidden.
Also, there are numerous movies besides the ones I have specifically noted that depict the wounds of war and can be used in a curriculum dedicated to the understanding of veterans and the disabilities that they come home with.
Blackie, Daniel. Disability, Dependency, and the Family in the Early United States, Urbana
University of Illinois Press, 2015
Gerber, D. Disabled Veterans in History, Michigan Press, 2015
Kalten, D.M. (2015) Soldiers Disabled 1861-1922, CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Reece, Miguel. The Disabled Veteran’s Story, Courtland Road Publishing, 2014
Williams, Kayla. Plenty of Time When We Get Home; Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of
War, W.W. Norton And Company, 2014
Whitman, W. Drum Taps, 1865