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Feb 11 2010

Tip Sheet

Soldiers Return: The Untold Story

As soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, communities are coming to grips with their issues and needs. Here's a list of stories that need telling.

Photo: Charles Mostoller: 
Retired Marine Corporal Michael Jernigan addresse ...

Photo: Charles Mostoller: Retired Marine Corporal Michael Jernigan addresses attendees of a workshop held at the Carter Center in Atlanta to help journalists cover returning service members and their communities. Over three days, the workshop produced many ideas for new stories and approaches.

"When Veterans Come Home" — a conference sponsored by Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the McCormick Foundation and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program in Atlanta Jan. 7 through 8, 2010  —  explored the challenges journalists face covering returning soldiers. These story ideas emerged from that workshop. 

As hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers return home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists have an important role to play. What local resources are available to help military families make the transition to civilian life? How will returning soldiers cope with the physical, social and psychological wounds of war? How can communities be made aware of the needs and issues of returning soldiers?

Consider these ideas a starting point for innovative reporting on these important issues. 

  • Look at the cumulative psychiatric implications of multiple deployments and what preventative measures can be used to help returning soldiers.
  • Behavioral problems can result from living in a war-torn environment. Take a look at driving habits of returning soldiers, for instance, and explore how post-traumatic stress disorder may contribute to car accidents or overreaction to trivial road mishaps.
  • Consider positive and negative consequences of staying in touch through social networks like Facebook, Twitter, email and Skype. Look at this from the point of view of both a deployed soldier and his or her family at home. 
  • Examine the isolation of soldiers serving in reserve units.  Without a close connection to health and support resources at a military base, who does he or she bond with at home? What services are available to get back in the work force? What community services are available specifically for those who are just put back into the world they knew before deployment?
  • What is a moral injury? Gleaning insights from Jonathan Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” explore how traumatic combat experiences and lack of trust in commanding officers can impact a returning soldier’s mental health.
  • Follow a veteran who has returned home through the experiences of his or her immediate family: grandparents, parents, siblings, spouse and children, even friends. How does the family learn to bridge the transition from active duty to civilian life?
  • Explore divorce rates among returning soldiers and examine how that might impact the emotional and financial health of the family.
  • How do female soldiers manifest symptoms of PTSD? Do their responses to therapy differ from that of male soldiers? 
  • How does serving in combat impact parenting? Look at this through the experiences of both mothers and fathers. 
  • What should schools and faculty be required to know about students returning to school under the G.I. Bill? Why are these students different? What are local community colleges, state and private schools doing to ease the transition for returning soldiers?
  • What’s the economic impact of being a veteran and its correlation with child abuse? Spousal abuse?
  • Find veterans who have been successful in PTSD therapy and write their stories to show that this is not necessarily a permanent or hopeless condition. Is there a positive side of facing this?
  • What’s going on in prisons to help veterans with PTSD and other ailments?
  • Are there support groups for husbands of female veterans? For children? 
  • Do a story on peer support treatment groups and how they work within the broader health care system.
  • Explore the role of military psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. What makes the military career path different from the civilian?
  • Do a story on how the stigma of traumatic memory or PTSD prevents some veterans from getting help. 
  • Does the Army operate Family Readiness Groups in your community? What are they? Who runs them? What are their goals? Are they effective?
  • What research efforts are underway on PTSD and other war traumas? 
  • Follow the money trail. How does funding for PTSD and other mental health therapies fare compared to cancer and heart research? 
  • What new treatments — high blood pressure or anticonvulsive medications, for instance — are being tested for PTSD? Could there be a use for a “morning after” pill that someone could take to prevent sliding into PTSD or stress-related depression? Who is working on this at the V.A.?
  • As a public health story, survey available therapies and resources for treating PTSD among returning soldiers in your community, from mental health clinics to suicide prevention hotlines.  
  • Examine your community’s public health budget to see what is available and how the clinics or centers are adapting to returning soldiers’ issues. 
  • Examine shelters and homeless statistics in a community to find the veterans and what help they could and should be getting. 
  • How do anti-war sentiments relate to negative attitudes towards veterans? Examine institutions from churches to colleges to see what kinds of welcome returning soldiers receive.   
  • How are U.S. institutions and businesses dealing with returning veterans? Find positive examples of social support and compare to those that offer no support. Start with Catholic Charities and the United Way. 
  • Report on the differences between traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. How do the treatment paths vary for each condition? What happens when you have both?  The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury is a key resource. 
  • What constitutes resilience? Look at the genetic, developmental, neurobiological, psychosocial and spiritual factors and how they combine to provide resilience.  How does resilience aid recovery?
  • When a veteran commits suicide, how do loved ones cope with the loss of a child, sibling or spouse?  What resources are available? How do bereaved families learn to distance themselves from the pain and use a tragic experience to help others?
  • Because of America’s all-volunteer military, very few people in this country have a loved one deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Write a culture story on how Americans’ emotional distance from war impacts public policy regarding care of veterans. 
  • How can the disconnect be reconciled between those concerned about joblessness and spending and the 1 percent of the nation that is at war?  Find a sociologist to talk about this in the historical context of wars in America and how this affects today’s veteran.
  • Do a story on the bureaucracy of care and what a vet has to go through to get care on a daily basis.  Why is it such a mess?  Veterans for Common Sense is a key resource.
  • Why is veterans’ care politicized? Talk to senators and members of Congress to deeply explore their feelings, their voting record and their committee assignments. How good are their local offices in helping returning soldiers stymied by Veterans Administration bureaucracy to obtain the help they need?
  • Create a timeline of the changes that have taken place at the Veterans Administration to cope with current rising tide of need. What needs to be done, especially on the local level? Assess how local V.A. hospitals are doing in comparison to guidelines and needs.  Compare the budget with the demand for care. 
  • Explore grassroots efforts in the community that are outside the V.A. and do stories on the human beings behind those programs.
  • Despite increases in funding, V.A. hospital staffs seem overwhelmed in some areas with high-veteran populations. Compare and contrast the V.A. hospitals in your state or region to see how well they are carrying out the V.A. mission.  What are the wait times to get help? Are people being turned away or ignored? Do V.A. public relations folks avoid publicizing programs, because they can’t cope? What are the obstacles that prevent the V.A. from communicating with the public?
  • Create a veterans-related help page that archives stories, links to background material and serves as an overall resource center for the community.  Invite local veterans and their families to contribute to a blog. Advertise it!
  • Take a look at local crime rate. How many offenders are veterans? What are the crimes? The punishments? What’s behind those statistics? How do the experiences soldiers have in Iraq or Afghanistan impact behavior at home? Have veteran offenders been in treatment? What are the community services and education programs that could prevent crime among veterans? Connect the dots between the returning soldier’s type of service, rank, brigade and the crime to determine the trends.
  • Write about the public’s response to soldier suicides. How does the stigma of suicide affect the evaluation of a soldier’s service?
  • Have returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan triggered PSTD in Vietnam veterans? Is there an upswing of Vietnam patients at the V.A.?
  • Examine the social service infrastructure of the community outside of the V.A. network to handle problems that are related to, but might not be identified with, the war: housing needs, food services, health care, education, food stamps, employment, church, synagogue or mosque programs.
  • Do a story, series or magazine piece from the perspective of Iraqi soldiers and what they are going through to regain their lives. 
  • Look at the number of veterans’ disability claims filed in your local community.  How many returning soldiers have physical disabilities versus emotional ones? How many complaints have been filed on V.A. performance, and what is the trend of those complaints?
  • Examine domestic and child abuse cases and see how veterans with PTSD are involved and what the family courts are doing to help these cases. 
  • Work with a local journalism program to get students to help report on a local veteran issue, including doing interviews for the web, slide shows and cultural histories. If there are significant ethnic groups, such as Native American or Latino veterans, collaborate with a local ethnic media outlet — radio, weekly newspaper or website. 
  • Look for what’s missing in your stories. Women soldiers are not the only rape victims.

See a listing of all resources from the "When Veterans Come Home" workshop and additional resources for reporting on veterans.

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