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In Their Boots (Blog post Part 1)

On May 31, 2011, in News & Updates, by admin

On May 20th I attended a seminar on PTSD and returning combat veterans put on by the Mental Health Association.  It was an all day seminar given by Dr. John Mundt, a psychologist at the Chicago VA.  The audience was made up of mental health practitioners and social workers who wanted to get a better understanding of what veterans were facing and dealing with when coming home, and in turn, how they as mental health practitioners could be better prepared to help.

I wasn’t sure what to expect being that I was probably the only one in the room that was not a clinician, therapist or social worker. Would the things Dr. Mundt spoke about go over my head, would I be able to follow along, or would there a lot of clinical terminology that I wouldn’t understand? Would what he says resonate with me as a concerned citizen/filmmaker just as much as it would with the other people in the audience?

What I found was more than what I had expected. Dr. Mundt was passionate, energetic (which he would need to be to give a 7hr lecture) informative, and most importantly displayed a true sense of concern and urgency in regards to caring for our veterans.  While Dr. Mundt works for the VA, he was not afraid to say that he realizes how flawed the system is and that a lot of work needs to be done to improve it on many levels, but he did want everyone to know that for as many flaws and issues there are with the VA, there are also many people working for them that truly do care and want to help our veterans in whatever way they can.

I’m going to cut this blog into two parts, for part 1; I want to share two stories with you that Dr. Mundt shared with us – stories of 2 different veterans from 2 different wars.  These stories really stuck with me and I will remember them for the rest of my life. (In part 2 of the blog I will share more of the facts and interesting information I learned while I was there.)

The most poignant part of the entire day, for me, were the case studies (stories) that Dr. Mundt shared about some of the veterans he has worked with:

A veteran of OEF and OIF “Luke” was deployed for 15months in Iraq and 9 months in Afghanistan.  While there are a lot of details to “Luke’s” story the part that stands out the most, is the incident he had while driving an armored vehicle in Afghanistan.

“Luke” was part of the tank crew. They were trained not to stop, to keep going until they got to their destination because if they stopped they could be risking their own lives and the lives of everyone else on the convoy.  They would give fair warning to get out of the way – but sometimes not everyone listened – and they didn’t always know if it was a trick to get the trucks to stop. Sometimes the enemy would purposefully put women and children in the way of a convoy to prey on the morality of the American soldiers, knowing that they would want to stop the vehicles, and when they did they would ambush them. So, the soldiers were trained not to stop – for anything.  One day there was a little girl that wouldn’t move and as the truck got closer she didn’t get out of the way and “Luke” had to keep going, he couldn’t stop, and she did not get out of the way.

He can’t stop thinking of that little girls face as the truck was about to run her over.  It haunts him every day – deep down he realizes that he did what he had to do and if he had stopped he may have risked his own life and those of his buddies, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking of that little girl and the guilt he feels about it. “Luke” has severe PTSD and TBI and has spent the last few years in and out of treatment. He is now being treated, with positive results, by Dr. Mundt and his team.

Another veteran Dr. Mundt worked with was a Vietnam veteran.  The piece of his story that was most haunting was the story of the one-on-one confrontation he found himself in with a young Viet Cong.  The American soldier and the Viet Cong both stepped out of the bush at the same time and found themselves facing each other – they were alone – they both drew their weapons simultaneously – and – both – weapons – jammed.  Neither one could get off a shot.  They both jumped back into the forest to hide behind trees and fix their weapons and when they came out again the American soldier was able to get his round off before the Viet Cong –  killing him before the Viet Cong could get off his round.  The Vietnam veteran called it “the most intimate moment of my life.”

He took the wallet from the dead Viet Cong and found a picture of a young woman in it, probably the young soldiers girlfriend or wife. He held onto that wallet for many, many years, and then as part of his therapy, sent the wallet with the picture back to Vietnam – in the hopes that it would find its way to the family of that dead Viet Cong soldier.

I relay these stories that I learned from Dr. Mundt because they are a tiny fraction of the thousands of stories that many of our war veterans have inside of them.   They affected me when I heard them in a way that really made it personal. Meaning, I think about both of those veterans often now, and I try to imagine what they must have felt at that moment, and how they feel now, how are they coping, how are they doing? And I think that’s important because we always need to recognize and remember that there is a personal story to every war fighter. And its easy to get lost in the statistics and numbers, and its easy to not think about it as we go on with our own busy and stressful lives, especially for those that don’t have a personal connection to the wars – but I do believe it’s part of our responsibility to honor and respect our veterans, and the more we can understand what they have gone through “over there” the more we can help and understand them when they come home.  This was one of the main points Dr. Mundt was trying to make – here are some of the things that they go through, here are some of the stories that they have, here are some of the conditions that they are under day in and day out – put yourself in their shoes, for a moment, and maybe that might help you to have a small glimpse of understanding of who they might be when they come home.  And once we have that small glimmer of understanding, now we can begin to better help them.

At least that is the message I took from the seminar.  I don’t know if everyone there took home the same message. I know that I left feeling like I had deeper insight than I did before that day started and a better understanding of what our veterans face, and how difficult a road home it can be.  It reminded me on a profound level as to why I’m working on this film project, and why it’s important.

I think its fitting that I sit here writing this first part of the blog on Memorial Day – a day that used to just mean a day off of school or work for me, (something I feel immense regret about) but now – means so much more, and thankfully, it always will.

If you are a veteran, thank you for your service. If you are a family member of a veteran, thank you for your sacrifice and strength. And to all the military men and women we have lost over the years – you will never be forgotten.

Yours truly,

Rachell Shapiro

(If you are a member of an organization who would be interested in having Dr. Mundt come and speak to your members, I highly recommend him, it will be an informative and worthwhile experience. He speaks to various groups all over the country.  Here is his website – http://www.drjohnmundt.com/)

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