Why Report on Veterans?

When veterans come home, they bring their experiences back to their loved ones and communities. Veterans advocate Paul Sullivan and other experts talk about how local news media can best report this national story.

Note: Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, is a featured speaker at the upcoming workshop, "When Veterans Come Home," for regional journalists in Philadelphia April 1 and 2. This video and transcript are part of the Dart Center's Videos on Veterans series.

If there's one thing about good reporting on service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that veterans, veteran advocates, journalists and academics can all agree on, it's that there's not enough of it.

Mark Benjamin, an investigative reporter at Salon.com who often reports on veterans' issues, says there's a huge gap between the experience of veterans and the rest of the American people that journalists must help bridge. Michael Jernigan, a retired Marine corporal who was severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, says that gap makes it hard to reintegrate into society. Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist and the author of two must-read books on the experience of veterans, claims that this reintegration is crucial for individual recovery from the psychological wounds of war. Veterans advocate Paul Sullivan wants reporters to convey the vast scope of veterans' mental health as an issue. Finally, Matthew Friedman, the executive director of the National Center for PTSD, says it's the responsibility of journalists to make the complex details of veterans' mental health understandable to the public. 



Paul Sullivan: The biggest piece of the puzzle about returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars that is missed by reporters is the fact that it is a national tragedy. Here's what I mean: Most reporters will report one story about a veteran and their problem. Everyone likes the local interest story. That's nice; it's excellent reporting. However, almost all reporters miss the fact that we have sent 2.2 million servicemembers over to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001. And as of late 2009, 500,000 — a half million — are now V.A. patients. And, of those, about half are mental health patients. So, while the press does a good job covering individual stories, they are missing the forest by looking at one tree.

Michael Jernigan: There's a difference between me and the general public. There's a difference between not just me, myself, but guys like me that are returning home. We look around and we see what's important to everyone around us, and to us it's not that important. You know, I don't care what Britney Spears is doing. What I do care about is that there's a war on two fronts and that it's not getting covered in the news.

Mark Benjamin: There is a very large and disconcerting gap between what is happening to veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and what the American people care about.

MJ: You might consider a bad day getting cut off in traffic; I consider a bad day one of my buddies getting shot.

MB: The reality is that less than one percent of the American population is serving under arms. That is the smallest percentage of the U.S. poplulation in the history of the United States. And what that means is that a very small sliver of America is bearing a huge burden, in some cases a horrible burden. Three, four, five combat tours? We have never done that before. And so, as journalists, we are documenting something that is serious, that is dangerous, that is important, that is compelling. And the reality is that not that many people care.

MJ: It's that extreme difference between the way I view things and the way that somebody else views things. And I think that those two differences are what makes it so hard to reintegrate into a civilian community.

Jonathan Shay: As far as I'm concerned, recovery happens only in community. And the recovery I'm talking about here is the real stuff that wrecks people's lives: the destruction of their character, the destruction of the capacity for trust. I'm not talking about this narrow fear syndrome that is defined by the DSM: PTSD. They've got some pretty good stuff, not perfect, not a magic bullet, but pretty good stuff for that. But that's not what wrecks people's lives!

Matthew Friedman: Frankly, there's a lot of journalism that doesn't go beyond the labels and I think it does a disservice to the public, because the only way the public is really going to learn about all of this stuff is through you guys. They're not going to read the scientific journals. They're not going to attend the scientific meetings I attend. You guys are the conduit through which their sophistication can be enhanced, and that's important, because I think there's a lot of public poilcy implications. There's a lot of things we ought to be doing in the classroom as well as in parenting.

Additional video by Charles Mostoller and Daniel Johnson-Kim.