Monday, March 4, 2013

The Hidden Agony

As shown in a recent 60 Minutes segment, the casualties of our pointless foreign wars go on, mostly unreported, long after all the troops come home.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a lingering killer that prolongs the awful experiences of wartime on our warfighters long after they come home.  The agony is also inflicted on the families and friends of those who have served in our military, sometimes killing them, as well.

There's only minimal coverage of this hidden agony.  The death tolls from PTSD aren't included in the lists of those killed in our wars, but our wars surely caused those fatalities every bit as much as AK-47 bullets, IEDs, and RPGs caused combat deaths.  According to one source, a US military veteran dies by suicide every 65 minutes on average!  And the deaths are only part of the story.  The anguish and economic losses wrought by PTSD's effects on all of us are part of the hidden price tag of our foreign excursions.  It's time we faced up to the reality of what these pointless wars are doing to us, not only in the terrible waste of lives and sorely needed resources, but the impact of our wars on the very people we claim to hold in such high esteem: those who are serving their nation in our military forces, laying down their lives at our request.  "Our request?" you might ask, "I didn't ask them to do that!"  Yes, you did!  The politicians we voted for have put us in this situation - the politician-cowards we keep voting for who mostly have used their political power to avoid military service for themselves and their families - the politicians we voted for who put corporate profits above the lives of our warfighters - the politicians we voted for who believe we can impose American-style democracy at the point of a gun.  It is we who are asking our warfighters to risk their lives for us.  If we support these pointless wars and the politicians who command our troops, we're responsible for what those wars do to us.

 In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our veterans is to not put more young people in combat situations unless the need is beyond question and the goals served by our warfighters are worth the price we're paying.  The typical war we seem to find ourselves in of late puts our troops on foreign soil as invaders.  We wave off the civilians killed as "inevitable collateral damage" and there's no clear path to an end of the fighting, short of killing most everyone there.  The locals hate us because we're invaders.  Guerrilla warfare can be maintained indefinitely when the population supports the insurgents, blaming our troops for all the problems that our wars rain down on innocent civilians.  Can we really solve the challenge of terrorism by killing all the terrorists?  Is returning violence for violence ever going to solve the world's conflicts?  That tit-for-tat policy has been operating in the Middle East for thousands of years - how's that been working, so far?

In a rather different vein, the son of my cousin recently shared some photos he took of damage in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.  It soon will be eight years since that awful event, but the damage still shows clearly.  What doesn't show in photographs is the anguish and loss that the victims of that terrible storm have to deal with every day, right down to this very day and perhaps for years to come.  PTSD isn't limited to stress from combat.  A tornado can cause lasting psychological trauma, as I've learned in studying the most important tornado (to date) in US history:  that known as the "Tri-State" tornado of 18 March 1925.  We talked with living survivors who still have vivid, terrible memories of that day, etched indelibly on their memories.

The devastation from storms goes on and on, literally for years and perhaps in some cases, for decades.  I began to realize this in the aftermath of the 03 May 1999 tornadoes here in Oklahoma - I wrote about that experience here.  I saw that the media circus would only go on for a few days, interviewing victims and putting their agony on public display for the sake of the media's advertisers.  Another event would put new blood in the water to attract the media sharks, who would move on to the next news story.  The event would fall down the news ladder and mostly disappear from public sight.  The agony caused by that devastating tornado would remain, hidden from view, but no less real for that.  The survivors would have to bury their dead and do what they could to rebuild their shattered lives.  I know of no one who tracks the real economic and human toll from storm disasters.  We limit our attention to the direct fatalities and the cost of the building damage, but ignore all the other costs, including those from PTSD.

In the past, those who experienced PTSD were treated mostly as weaklings, who failed to have the courage and fortitude to withstand the awful things they experienced.  The famous George S. Patton incident in an Army hospital comes to mind as an example of that attitude.  PTSD isn't about cowardice or weakness of character.  And it can happen to any of us, should we be unlucky enough to live through an awful event like a powerful tornado.  It's time to offer our help to the survivors of traumatic experiences.  We need to stop ignoring them, writing them off, and blaming the victims for what happens to them.  Rather than spending hundreds of billions to equip our warfighters for combat, perhaps we should set aside some of that for more compassionate treatment of and help for our military veterans?  Rather than spending hundreds of billions propping up mismanaged corporations (corporations are not people!), perhaps we should offer counseling and treatment for storm victims (real people!) who can't otherwise afford such care?

Oklahoma weather and the people it has caused me to know

The wind howls tonight in Oklahoma.  It's from the south but the promise of change is there as an undertone to what's happening.  This is far from unusual, of course.  It's a familiar story here in Oklahoma - a big factor in why I have come to live here longer than any other place in my life.  The weather here is a constantly-changing factor in our lives.  We slide from flood to drought, from sweltering heat to bitter cold, from sparkling sunny days to periods of gloom.  That very variability is what defines Oklahoma weather.  Oklahoma weather is about change, and the impact of that change on our lives.  You just don't easily ignore Oklahoma's weather.  On a regular basis, it forces you to pay attention to what the atmosphere is doing.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Oklahoma weather makes it nature's most volatile location for severe storms.  We are the world's focus for the action that drives people into storm chasing.  Everything that happens during the course of the annual cycle of the weather here is focused on providing the setting for massive supercells and their associated tornadoes during our storm season.  It's the reason I came to live and learn here, and the reason I met my friends and colleagues who share my passion for the drama and excitement of the most ferocious storms the atmosphere provides.   Such storms pack the biggest, most concentrated punch of any atmospheric phenomenon on this planet.  And they happen more frequently here than anywhere else on the planet.

After I arrived here, I eventually came to know many people who shared my fascination with such storms.  The people I now call my friends and colleagues have assumed a greater significance in my life as time has passed.  My passion for the inanimate atmosphere put me on a collision course with people who have encouraged me, inspired me, and shared amazing moments with me over the course of my career.  Who would have guessed that this would have been the outcome of my original obsession with storms?  I certainly had no clue as a young man.  I had no idea what it was going to be like, and was clueless about what awaited me.

One of my best friends has recently been taken from me and from the world of meteorology by the ravages of a terrible disease.   I've spent so many incredible moments with him in the course of my career, it seems beyond comprehension that he could be taken from me by the cruel affliction of Alzheimer's syndrome.

In late May of 1975, we spent a night huddled in my tent in the Palo Duro Canyon of Texas - a mostly sleepless night because of the buffeting of our tent by the relentless, intensifying southerly winds, not dissimilar from those of this evening.  An approaching storm energized those winds, as it does tonight.  The winds that stole our sleep also brought moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, fuel for the day of supercells that was to come the next day.  After a mostly sleepness night, we were up earlier than usual.  We had little sleep that night, but energized by our relative youth and our eager anticipation for what was to come the next day, the day's chase had an unintended early start.

Ultimately, of course, we never can know for sure what the future will bring.  We saw powerful supercells the next day - but no tornadoes.  How was I to know that the passage of time would steal my friend from me before his body failed him?  Time brings change, and that change is not necessarily easy to forecast - so many factors control the future.  I owe so much to my friend, but he no longer even knows who I am.  How can I hope to tell him how much he has meant to me?  That time has passed, and I only hope that what words I've shared with him in the past have had the desired impact.  But those words, and any future words, no longer matter at all.  He no longer remembers them.  Or me.  It's as if all of it never was - but not to me!

The wind still howls outside my window as I write this, just as it did many years ago.  But my friend is no longer with me.  That makes the prospects for the future much less exciting for me.  Treasure your happy times with your friends.  They're evanescent moments that mostly only matter to you - and them.   But they are the moments that you'll hold onto in the face of whatever the future brings for you.