Valley forum 9/11 memories a decade later
Soon, our country's memories of a decade ago will be triggered by planned events to acknowledge that horrific day when, for the first time, we as citizens of United States would experience being attacked on our mainland, in New York City and Virginia.
On that day, Sept. 11, 2001, being an early riser, the norm for me was to catch the news on CNN. Within minutes of the attack on the twin towers in New York City, viewers around the world were able to witness the aftermath of aterrorist attack. As were most U.S. citizens, I was shocked, and for moment could not believe this was happening. At that time, I was director of two divisions of The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had previously been deployed by the Veterans Administration to the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Los Angeles riots and the Oklahoma City bombing in my role as lead mental health responder. I thought I would be deployed to New York City.
Then came the second attack on the Pentagon. Because The National Center for PTSD had collegial relationships with some Pentagon staff, I happened to have on my cell phone the number of a lt. colonel who was working at the Pentagon. I immediately called him and asked if they would need assistance of a senior psychological trauma team. The response was an empathic, "Yes." As soon as I hung up the phone, I contacted my work site, the Palo Alto VA, and advised them that I had a request from Pentagon staff to provide assistance in immediate response to victims and their families.
Within a few hours, I had an assembled team of senior traumatologists, and with the support of our VA hospital, loaded up two vans with our gear and proceeded to drive cross country. Within 74 hours we arrived at the Pentagon Assistance Center that was put in place as a response center for victims and families.
Initially, we were tasked as support for those in uniform who were providing direct care. As the need for service grew, our team from California became an integral part of mental health support response. This experience, although challenging at times, and laded with sadness for those who experience loss and insecurity while not knowing what would happen next, left us all wondering if we would be going to war.
As we all know, we eventually found our country's warriors in the Middle East. From 2003 through 2007, a few other colleagues and I were invited to share our expertise in treatment of Combat Related Stress on military bases (Balboa Naval Medical Center, Camp Pendleton, K Bay, Schoffield Barracks and Fort Sill, etc.) I have had a long history working in the field of war-related trauma, dating back to 1978 when I founded the first residential treatment center for PTSD, years before the PTSD diagnoses became formal.
Decades of designing and consulting for combat trauma programs across the country had provided me with many insights into the challenge of delivery of psychological and social wellbeing programs for those who now struggle with issues such as hopelessness, war-related anxiety, nightmares, social isolation, anger, family discord, numbing, self-medicating and intrusive thoughts.
It was during the time I spent on military bases that I realized that we as a country, and as mental health professionals, were not prepared for the complexity and challenges that we would face when our men and women warriors return home.
With the multiple deployments, and the new medical technology increasing survival rates, and with the invisible wounds such as traumatic brain injury, the existing health care systems and services are overloaded and unprepared to address different post war injuries.
At Camp Pendleton, brainstorming with military colleagues, it became clear to me that we needed a diverse treatment program combining evidence-based treatment, best practice models and an overall holistic approach that included the general public as partners in the healing process for providing best possible care.
More than 2.1 million American military members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 1.2 million have returned. Their suicide rate is high, as is divorce and legal problems, and homelessness is on the increase while 13 percent of the unemployed are today's warriors.
Although there are many services available for today's returning warriors, the fact remains that we, as a country have yet to meet the obligation of taking care of those who have served their country. While in harms way, our warriors did not fight as democrats, republicans, independents or individuals from a particular city, town or state. They are our country's sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, family members, neighbors and friends.
Our country responds quickly and beyond what most other countries provide when it comes to international disaster aid, but we have yet to make the same effort or investment in our returning warriors. All we have to do is consider the long wait times seen in our health-care systems, time that we keep our warriors waiting to process out of military, to understand a part of the problem.
So, as some in our country remember the 9/11 Attack, and as our media shows 9/11 events, some of us will recall where we were that day. For others, their thoughts will be on what the cost has been, over time, in lives and injuries beyond that fatal day that launched us into the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For me, 9/11 lives on, as we in the Pathway Home Program have assisted more then 215 warriors and more than 130 families, and continue to be part of the true coming home of today's warriors. My colleagues who deployed with me to the 9/11 response were rewarded by the lives that we were able to touch and be touched by. We received a plaque of recognition for our efforts, but the true reward for me has been the ability to continue to serve those who have given so much.
The media always ask those impacted by experiences like 9/11, how it has affected them, and what are their hopes? Mine is simple: To keep The Pathway Home Program alive, a non-profit that does so much for those who have served.
The most immediate need for The Pathway Home is sustainable funding so that we can continue to serve our nation's new warriors, those of any age who have served our nation's global war on terror in areas of the world such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
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Fred Gusman is executive director of the Pathway Home in Yountville.