Standing with Those on the Edge

As a Washington Capitals season ticket holder I've come to cherish the moment at each game when fans are asked to salute guest soldiers, many of whom are being treated at nearby Walter Reed Army Hospital. To a person, everyone rises to their feet and gives our guests an extended standing ovation. It's an amazing feeling to be among 15,000 people expressing such love and respect. But when the applause gives way to life's daily drudgeries, I wonder what happens to those brave soldiers, especially those in need of mental health support? Are we asked to stand up then? This weekend, The New York Times ran two articles on the mental health of our troops serving in Iraq. One, "Army Is Worried by Rising Stress of Return Tours," detailed how each tour of duty significantly raises the odds that a soldier will return home with "anxiety, depression or acute stress." The second piece, "After War, Love Can Be a Battlefield," told of 19 couples who attended a weekend retreat called "Strong Bonds," to learn how to deal with the enormous stress placed on marriages and families when soldiers return home.

What is our bond to our troops when the applause dies down, when men and women in uniform find themselves sitting alone in their dark living room or around an empty kitchen table, when the demons of trauma will not relent, when there seems to be no one they can talk with? After we ship someone overseas for a tour of duty, what does it mean for us to have "strong bonds" with them when they come home?

Mental health is still a taboo subject in our society, though our ability to talk about it openly has improved dramatically in my lifetime. I remember as a kid, watching my mom help to create "Hammond House," a halfway home for mental health patients who had been "de-institutionalized" by New York State during the 1970s. Hammond House was located just a handful of blocks from my own home. What my mom and others did was pretty remarkable.

I also remember seeing the slim white envelopes among the mail on our dining room table, with the austere black lettering in the upper left-hand corner: "Saratoga County Mental Health Committee." Among his many commitments, my dad served on this committee at a time when mental health issues were often considered shameful to talk about in public.

I still recall vividly the college psychiatrist at Skidmore College, Dr. Mastrianni, approaching me after a speech I'd given, to ask if I would consider working at the county's Mental Health Crisis Center. I quickly said yes, and it was an experience that would help direct my life. My role was to help patients during the many hours when no doctor was to be seen. I remember going home after 12-hour shifts and sitting on the floor in my room hoping to decompress and sort out what I had seen and experienced. I was only 19 or 20 years old. I remember once having to help tie down to her bed a struggling patient; she was someone I had walked to elementary school with, someone I had known for years.

What I came to know from my time at the crisis center was how close to the edge so many people live; how someone can seem to be doing relatively okay one day, and then the next they are pushed too far, beyond what they can handle at the moment. Together with other experiences, my time at the Crisis Center left an indelible mark upon my heart: we must be our brother's keeper.

A visiting rabbi at my temple recently asked some of us when we had felt God's presence, or at least some semblance of genuine spirituality. I've felt it many times, but one is when we Caps fans stand-up together in a show of support of our troops. In my row alone, I suspect there are widely divergent views on the war; but in that single moment, when we all stand, there is something incredibly beautiful that occurs, something that seems larger than any of us. We are together.

I keep thinking of the people I met at the Crisis Center, people who desperately wanted to get back up on their feet; I think as well about the people my parents sought to support in my home town, and how they were willing to stand up for them. Now, when our troops return from a war many people do not want, what will we do? I wish we could find a way to stand up for our troops � not merely by giving out medals, or through recognition at sporting events, or with periodic retreats about how to save one's marriage. We need to stand with individuals who need our ongoing support so that they can get back up on their feet.