The suicide hotline at the Department of Veterans Affairs logs 10,000 calls a month. And the tally of suicides by active-duty military reached 349 in 2012, surpassing the number of troops killed in combat.
“There is a mental health problem among our vets,” Eileen Moore, a former combat nurse in Vietnam, said Thursday night. Moore, now an appellate court judge, spoke to benefit the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, an effort to bring a Vietnam War Museum to Garden Grove.
Veterans’ suicides have made news of late, Moore noted, but the damage caused by war isn’t new. Each generation simply gives it a different name. “In World War I it was called shell shock and in World War II doctors called it battle fatigue,” Moore explained.
“After Vietnam, we called it post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Today many soldiers and vets don’t want to be labeled with something associated with a disorder, so they call it PTS.” Although the name has changed, the problem has not, Moore said before a crowd that included many veterans.
She spoke of the homeless vets who now wander the streets, of vets behind bars, and of one Marine in particular whose murder conviction was upheld in her courtroom.
Suffering from untreated PTSD, “he drove under the influence of alcohol and severely injured a woman and killed her husband just a few miles from where we are now,” Moore said. After her tour in South Vietnam, Moore left nursing for the law.
She was appointed to the Orange County Superior Court by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1989, and to appeals court in 2000 by Gov. Gray Davis. The Orange County Board of Supervisors has twice honored her work, and she was named trial judge of the year three times.
In her courtroom and through her work as the head of the Veterans Working Group for California Courts, she has seen countless veterans fail to adjust to civilian life. Instead, they “self medicate” with alcohol and street drugs.
“It is obvious that a lot more than applause at the airport is due our combat veterans,” Moore said of the current efforts to help returning soldiers. Moore also talked of the difficult choices she faced as a combat nurse at a Qui Nhon hospital, where many soldiers wanted nothing more than to come home.
Punji stick wounds, a stab from a sharp bamboo stick that had been dipped in feces, were common there. A massive infection resulted, but soldiers would ask her to stop giving them antibiotics. “If we skipped the shot and he got shipped out, he wouldn’t have to go back into the jungle,” Moore explained.
“But if the infection healed, he wouldn’t be shipped out, he’d be sent back and this time he might be killed. Think about that from the young nurse’s perspective, a nurse who had been taught to heal.” She also talked of treating soldiers with serious injuries, those who had lost an arm, a leg, or worse.
“Relief flooded their faces,” even after they’d been told about their injury, Moore recalled. They’d say: “Charlie can’t get me anymore and I’m going home.”
Moore’s talk was the second of three sponsored by the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation. The third, on March 21, will feature Jose Ramos, founder of Welcome Home Veterans Day.
By Nicole Shine