Memorial Day

May 29, 2009

This past Memorial Day holiday I read a few articles written by veterans that prompted more than the usual amount of thought about the meaning of the Holiday – or rather our responsibility on this holiday. One article cited the fact that more active duty US servicemen have died in the past year from suicide than by combat. Mental health professionals speculate that the multiple deployments into highly stressful combat situations (where actual combat was unpredictable and combatants often disguised as civilians) has exacted a terrible toll on soldiers. One thing is not speculation: the failure to recognize and provide adequate treatment to help our veterans has made the problem far worse.

I talked with a friend of mine who had served during the Viet Nam Era. When he was discharged and returned to attend college at the University of Michigan his experiences had already made him feel “different”. His wardrobe of fatigues identified him as a target for the occasional derisive comment, or more commonly, the silent stares. He tried to take shelter one day at the local VFW Hall in Ann Arbor, only to be refused a beer because he had “lost the war”. He spent his entire college experience nearly completely isolated. The only normal college experience was singing “The Victors” when the Wolverines scored a touchdown. There were thousands of veterans like him, not only on college campuses but across the spectrum of life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Veterans of American wars have always felt changed, if not alienated, when they return home. It’s part of the war experience that the human mind can’t really comprehend. Historically veterans of every major war have had to make it back pretty much on their own, with the notable exception of WWII veterans. When my father was discharged from the service the Country provided him, and every veteran, a college education, a guaranteed mortgage and a Veteran’s Hospital system that rivaled the best medical centers in the Country. Today, veterans can get barely 2 years college tuition from their benefits, VA loans are difficult to get, and the VA Hospital system has been allowed to deteriorate to Third World Country status.

I came to the conclusion this past weekend that Memorial Day was a responsibility to those of us who have not served in the armed forces. It should be an occasion when we all take a hard look at what we need to DO for our veterans and not just express a perfunctory “thanks” as we barbeque and toss back a beer. Take some time this week and write your Representative or Senator and demand that the military budget for HUMAN costs and benefits be increased. It takes maybe 15 minutes of your day, compared to a lifetime that vets have given us.

Obama and National Security

May 29, 2009

President Obama gave a remarkable speech last week discussing the issue of National Security. He said some things that have been long overdue, but I wonder if the media will dwell on the substance rather than form. The substance of what the President offered was a blueprint for restoring not only the security of our country, but healing our national soul. Ben Franklin once said that people who would sacrifice liberty for security deserved neither. That was the essential message of President Obama. It reflects the idealism and strength of our Country which has kept us free and safe for over 200 years. Fear mongering is the character and trade of men like Dick Cheney. He is a man whose life is organized around fear. A man who dodged the draft 6 times is a coward. Like most cowards he talks the talk until it comes time to walk the walk. The juxtaposition of Cheney with President Obama offered a clear choice to Americans: are we still the land of the brave and home of the free, or are we sheep following torturers and fear mongers?

Fear Wins Out

May 26, 2009

I was involved in a trial recently that reminded me of an old movie called “Fear Strikes Out”. It was the story of a professional baseball player named Jimmy Piersall who regained his career after developing a psychiatric illness. It was produced in the early 1960’s during a time when we treated people who had mental illness much more humanely than we do now. You see, in the 1970’s we emptied and closed State Mental Institutions and in the 1980’s destroyed the “social safety net”. State mental institutions were far from perfect, but much more humane and cost-effective than what has evolved since then. Today, many mentally ill people are either homeless or serially jailed, at great expense to tax payers. The result is that people are sometimes confronted and frightened by acutely mentally ill on the streets and jails are overcrowded with people who barely get necessary treatment. It is a cruel and costly system.

I just finished a trial involving the Canton, Ohio police killing a man who was suffering from a mental illness. The father of two was wandering the streets near his home, naked and bloody. He was obviously mentally ill and frightened people, although he had threatened no one and committed no crime. In fact, as the police pulled up, he held out his hands and asked for help. The police, I think reacting from fear, immediately sprayed him with chemical pepper gas, tazed him and handcuffed him. The entire event was witnessed by many people and much of what followed was videotaped. As the the man lay handcuffed and face down on the street, the police beat, kicked and tazed the defenseless man repeatedly. Ultimately, he died from being asphyxiated.

The Ohio jury came to a verdict that I feel reflects the fact that fear, as opposed to compassion, is the hallmark of our society at the moment. They did find the City of Canton, Ohio guilty of failing to train the police officers properly, but exonerated the police who had beaten and killed a defenseless man!

It is sad that people, even trained police officers, in America today have allowed fear to justify behavior that would have never been tolerated even a decade ago. Whether it is torturing mentally ill people or terrorists. We have to ask ourselves if maybe we have allowed fear to “win out”. As the man I represented was being being beaten and tazed as he lay on the ground he kept calling out “I love you” to the police officers who were killing him. I wonder, who was truly mentally ill in this case?