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Strangers on a plane: How the realities of war hit home
20 Feb 2014

Strangers on a plane: How the realities of war hit home

Capstone is proud to work with several organizations whose research has advanced treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and other challenges soldiers face when they return home. Diane Rogers reflects on some of those challenges after a recent business trip brought her into contact with one such veteran.

Like so many around the globe, I’ve recently become a huge Downtown Abbey fan.


Lots to love about the show but one thing that has stayed with me was their portrayal of World War I  – they had several scenes with soldiers in the trenches and while watching, it dawned on me where that phrase “In the trenches” comes from and while I knew it – I hadn’t really felt it until seeing it dramatized in such a way. They also show how the soldiers were profoundly affected by the war – and although the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had not yet been coined, it was clear that different characters who had been in the war suffered from it.

Flash-forward to the present and unfortunately not much has changed.

I was traveling back from DC recently after a full day of meetings and was getting on the plane back to Milwaukee, hoisting my suitcase up when a nice, handsome young man offered to help. I told him no thank you – it was why I worked out. He laughed and of course it turned out he was seated next to me. He had the window seat and asked if I would switch, which I politely refused because I hate the window seat. He told me it was hard for him because he needed to be prepared. Prepared for what I wasn’t sure – I thought he might have been a US Marshall but I’m not even sure they still have them on planes anymore. In any event, all I wanted to do after a tedious day of meetings is sit in my seat and not talk.

But, he kept talking to me and I decided to listen. It turns out he wanted the aisle seat because he had just spent the last few years in Afghanistan – special ops – and he was used to being ready to jump out of airplanes.  Because there was no one sitting in section across the aisle, I moved over, allowing him to move, and we continued our conversation.

He was hard of hearing in his right ear so he kept turning to bend his good ear toward our continuing discussion.  The conversation ranged from the failure of the counter insurgency in Afghanistan to health care to religion to education – we covered it all in our short two-hour flight from DC.  We didn’t agree on a lot of topics but it was the most engaging two hours I had spent in a long time. And the conversation stayed with me.  He was an extremely intelligent young man, a perfect gentleman, a devoted father and husband, and most poignantly on this trip, a soldier, who clearly needed to talk and I was glad to be there to listen.

What didn’t sit well with me was the notion that these young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are largely forgotten – not necessarily by our government as millions of dollars goes toward traumatic brain injury research and more broadly, veteran’s care.  In fact, according to the VA, they spend some $57 billion for 633,000 veterans per year and the number of veterans receiving government subsidized educations benefits is 293,384.

But in spite of the dollars, I feel the returning soldiers are forgotten given the encounters I’ve had.  He told me how impossible it was for him to get his health care and the rehab that he needed from the VA.  Not surprising, the VA reports between 11-20% of all returning veterans suffer from PTSD.  I personally think the number is probably higher. But perhaps that is not fair.




What is true is that the war in Afghanistan is the longest war we have ever been engaged in besides the Cold War.  Approximately 2 million U. S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the war began. Consider, according to Wikipedia:

  • 1.2 million are now eligible for VA services
  • 6,717 dead
  • 50,897 wounded

I fear the statistics don’t begin to tell the real story as the wounded coming home are doing so with such grave injuries. And, if as in the case of my soldier friend they are unable to get their rehab, what then?

The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs recently recommended several areas for improvement in VHA facilities regarding polytrauma care including that clinicians consistently complete Traumatic Brian Injury (TBI) evaluations within 30 days of positive screens and that staff caring for polytrauma patients have the documented competencies required for caring for these patients.  It’s now up to the VA to follow up on these recommendations and ensure that veterans get the care they need and deserve. (VA OIG Issue 70). But at least they are examining whether returning soldiers are receiving the proper care.

The little bit of research I’ve begun to do since meeting this brave soldier has prompted me to pause, to think, to reflect on all that those who go into harm’s way do for us who are at home, tending to our daily lives and living with our freedom and not necessarily thinking about those who are fighting to defend it. Perhaps it’s different in a community with a military base and certainly those have military members in their families think about them, but as a whole, as a nation, I fear we have forgotten.

Bayonets or mustard gas, IEDs or B1-Bombers, the implements of war leave the wounded both with scars we can see and those we cannot.  But it is up to us, both as a nation and as strangers meeting on airplane to both provide and ensure the care and to put forth the effort to simply listen and remember.





Diane Rogers, CapstoneNP Partner, draws on 25 years of experience working in state and federal government, offering clients expertise in public policy, politics, management, and strategic planning. Contact Diane here to find out more.



The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.


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