Editor’s Note: Paul Rieckhoff is founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an Iraq veteran and the author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The standoff in Yountville ended Friday night as we all feared it might – in tragedy. And it was especially tragic for our veterans and members of the military community. Alongside leaders who know The Pathway Home and the dedicated team there who do the work of serving our veterans, we are reeling today.
We mourn the loss and salute the heroism of Christine Loeber, executive director, Dr. Jen Golick, a therapist, and Dr. Jennifer Gonzales, a psychologist. They were heroes, not just in how they died, but in how they lived. They dedicated their lives to helping veterans. And they gave their lives helping veterans. And if we are to truly respect their sacrifice, we must help others understand the magnitude of it.
They worked every day on the front lines of a war most Americans never see – the war to heal the pain of those who have experienced combat. And make no mistake, it is a war. A forever war. And these three noble leaders, like most of us who do this kind of work, knew they were in danger daily. Yet they continued to step forward in the face of danger, stress and limited resources, to try to save as many as they could.
With over 20 million veterans in America and 3 million since 9/11, it’s a testament to them and all that serve them that there have actually been so few incidents like this. Most veterans, including those with mental health injuries, are not a danger to the public. Most often during emergencies like the one in Yountville, veterans are likely to be the EMT serving on the scene, the cop who responds, the victim lost protecting others, the doctor who provides emergency care, the reporter covering the incident or the member of Congress representing the area. Time and time again, veterans are the helpers.
When veterans with mental health injuries do hurt someone, it’s mostly likely themselves. But the sad reality is that sometimes they hurt the people very close to them – and that includes those that help them – like the three angels lost in Yountville. Social workers and psychologists are the domestic programming special ops of our time. With never-ending war overseas, increased political strife, racial tensions, social programming reductions and stunning, repeated leadership failures at the Veterans Administration, the pain is growing.
And yet organizations like The Pathway Home continue to provide the care these veterans so desperately need, even as resources shrink in the face of increasing demand.
The pain out there for post-9/11 veterans is real, deep and compounding – just as it was for every generation of veterans. War hurts people – and some it breaks completely. Those are often the ones that the social workers see daily. I’ve been working with my brother and sister veterans now for 14 years, and I’ve seen it up close in ways I can never fully share (or even understand).
Many veterans are doing well. Despite the challenges, and despite the still severely limited resources – a national embarrassment and a dereliction of duty by the public – they’re soaring as a population. Thanks to our core resilience, our training, the type of men and women who self-select to service, investments like the new GI bill, and most of all, thanks to the community we’ve built for each other, so many of us are succeeding in life. We are the next “Greatest Generation” of leaders – or the “innovation generation” – that can propel America’s future. And maybe even save it.
But as those of us that work in the trenches know, some veterans are extremely vulnerable, in tremendous pain and very, very angry. And they often have a right to be. They are a portion of the community that is in need, and yet left behind.
The reality I want to share is the reality I see – there are some (not most, maybe not even many) very angry vets. And with that anger comes increased risk for those of us who work to assist them.
We’ve been threatened by phone. We’ve been harassed online. We’ve gotten texts in the middle of the night. We’ve been scared in a room we worried we might not get out of alive. I’m a 6-feet-2-inch, 245-pound former combat infantryman. And I’ve been in a few situations doing this work where I definitely knew I was overmatched. I was scared – as much for my family as for myself. But that’s the job, especially for the most highly trained – and badly needed – of our mental health support professionals.
We’ve told our families not to worry, while we know they are right to do so. We’ve endured chronic underfunding, we’ve fought with absurd and outdated bureaucracies and faced a seemingly never-ending flow of need. We’ve taken out life insurance policies. We’ve told our wives and husbands what happened to Chris Kyle won’t happen to us. But we know it might.
And that’s the reality that Christine, Jen and Jennifer chose to heroically face every single day.
This tragedy will, of course, (and perhaps should) become another twist in the critical debate in this country about guns. But if there’s a new lesson I hope is learned after Yountville, it’s that the pain out there that we veterans face is real. And most of us will never pick up a gun in anger as a result. But we will endure unimaginable pain nonetheless. That is where I hope people focus their energy in the days to come. And veterans can show you how.
There’s a new generation of veterans that are not picking up a rifle, they’re picking up a masters in social work. They’ve survived the pain, found a path forward and are committed to helping reach back so others can find that path.
I didn’t know Albert Wong, but I’ve known many veterans struggling to fully transition home. I’ve seen some go on to live incredible lives, and I’ve seen some in a casket. And there’s an alternative history where Albert was transformed through his pain into a person who helps others like himself. I’ve seen it. And it can happen if more of us step up to help at the point of attack. At the point of pain. If you want to see it, just look hard enough on social media. The veterans sharing their pain are out there, and you can help by simply listening – and hearing their stories. Of course, that’s not enough.
There is a critical shortage of qualified mental health care leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs and nationwide – and not just those serving veterans – that must be addressed by every elected official running for office this fall. And if you’re considering a new career, or finishing school soon, your country needs you now. And if you’re the President, it’s long past time for you to issue a national call to action – to call for reinforcements to serve as mental health workers in this time of war.
The road forward after war is never easy, and never a straight line, but it’s out there. For individuals – and for our nation. And it’s easier to navigate if we do it together.
That includes you, whoever you are, reading this piece. Veteran or not. Ten tours overseas or none. We all have an obligation to look out for our fellow citizens. And especially those who heroically step up into the breach to serve our country like Christine, Jen and Jennifer did. Not just on the front lines overseas, but here at home. This is your moment. America’s future needs you.