They can’t forget, and we shouldn’t


The U.S. has been at war for 52 of the 75 years since the start of World War II. One of our reporters noted that we have been at war continuously for half her life; she is 30 years old. In recognition of Veterans Day, we would like to remind everyone in the community that there are men and women among us who have returned from active duty in the military — decades ago or last month — who have witnessed events that most of us simply cannot imagine. There is a compassionate network of people and programs on the Island to care for them, but all of us need to keep in mind the human cost of a foreign policy that has come to be called “the forever war.”

When you seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of your first revelations is that you are not alone. Upon sitting down in a group therapy session, you discover that others are reliving a terrifying event in the form of nightmares or flashbacks triggered by something as commonplace as a car backfiring or the sound of a particular language. You meet other people whose lives are shrinking because they fear crowds, they can no longer drive, and they avoid any situation that reminds them of the original traumatic events. Some Island veterans don’t go outside all summer long because of the number of tourists.

There are more than 500 Vineyard residents who are veterans, reservists, or are on active duty. If most of them are male, then that is equivalent to 7 percent of the male population of the Island. According to statistics gathered by the military, an estimated 1 in 5 military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Looking at statistics from the past six years, these numbers add up to over 300,000 military personnel — many of them now veterans — experiencing PTSD.

Tom Bennett, associate executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and its senior clinical advisor, is a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran. He was not deployed to Vietnam; instead, as a medic in the air-evac team at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, he cared for servicemen who arrived in the U.S. for treatment at the many military hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area. Although he did not see combat, being repeatedly exposed to the effects of combat — men his age who had been physically and mentally broken — took its toll on him.

Mr. Bennett finished his active-duty enlistment in 1968, and took a year off to travel. “I was trying to forget about the service,” he said. “It was such a painful thing.” Amid the societal upheaval created by the war, the continuing struggle for civil rights, and the emerging movement for women’s rights, Mr. Bennett decided he wanted to do something to help his community. A native of Martha’s Vineyard, he has been working with veterans here since 1970.

Variously called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” in earlier wars — see Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1955) for a World War II example — the definition of PTSD was not formulated until 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added PTSD to the third edition of its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-III). The key shift was to assign the cause of the symptoms to an external cause (a traumatic event) rather than an inherent weakness (“traumatic neurosis”). Small wonder that Vietnam-era veterans in particular became alienated from the Veterans Administration. In response, “vet centers” were set up across the country after the mid-1980s. These are funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but are separate from the VA hospitals. The Cape and Islands are served by the center in Warwick, R.I.  Mr. Bennett and his colleagues set up satellite programs here on the Island, based at the Island Counseling Center, which was originally set up as the Mental Health Center with the help of psychiatrist Milton Mazer in the early 1960s, and which is now part of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

Jo Ann Murphy, the county’s veteran agent, estimates that there are 350 veterans on the Island, 50 to 75 of them from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which have officially been underway for 26 years. Right now in Mr. Bennett’s programs, there are 28 local veterans with “readjustment problems” from serving in combat zones. These are people who have returned from active duty, but have been unable to resume their former lives. They find Bennett through outreach programs, and are also sent his way by Ms. Murphy. (Ms. Murphy, who won an award for being the best veteran’s agent in the commonwealth, handles all claims to the Veterans Administration made by county residents.)

Veterans also pass the word. “My vets,” said Mr. Bennett, “who see me once a week, will refer [other vets]. Sometimes they will actually bring them in here.” His office is across the road from the high school. Mr. Bennett used to send his Vietnam-era clients over to the high school sometimes to remind them that they were just kids when they were sent to fight a war. The average age of a soldier in Vietnam was 19. In today’s volunteer army, the average age of enlistees is 21.

There is no cure per se for PTSD; the symptoms — flashbacks, being constantly on guard, startling easily, and irritability — may never go away. Men and women with the disorder replay the traumatic events and re-experience the feelings associated with it, over and over. “I help them develop a different narrative,” said Mr. Bennett, “and help them fit it into their lives instead of having it run their lives. I try to get them to make meaning out of it and integrate that into caring for themselves, their families, and the community.

“Vets feel like they’re different,” he said. “And they are different, because of what they’ve been through.”

Veterans are not all ready to seek treatment. Sometimes the outreach programs will find people who are still convinced that they can cope with their symptoms on their own, as they were trained to do from boot camp forward. “It often takes a crisis before they reach out,” Mr. Bennett said. “In the military, you are supposed to just deal with it.”

For more information: Bill Stafursky is the coordinator for the Veterans Outreach Program at Community Services. His number is 508-693-7900, ext. 223, and his email address is