He graduated Top Gun, a real-life Maverick decades before Tom Cruise faked it in movie theaters.
He flew fighter jets in Vietnam and commanded the USS Abraham Lincoln, and eventually shouldered responsibility for every nuclear weapon in this country as head of the Bellevue-based United States Strategic Command.
He's 65 now, but retired Navy Adm. James Ellis still looks like he could spring from his seat and throw any punk reporter into a chokehold faster than you can say “Bellevue-based United States Strategic Command.”
He's old school, is what I'm trying to say. And yet here Adm. Ellis sits, at a table next to a convention center ballroom, talking about something that leathery military officers didn't used to talk about.
He's talking about post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We have evolved,” Ellis says. “We have evolved in our thinking about this. We have come to understand this and have empathy for this.”
This would be PTSD, which affects the lives of roughly one in five Iraq and Afghan War combat vets, according to a slew of research. More than 2 million service members have deployed at least once to those countries since 2001. Do the math, and that means more than 400,000 young U.S. combat veterans have suffered from the stress disorder, according to the Rand Corp.
These numbers have a face: The young Nebraska National Guard member who struggles to make even the tiniest decisions and withdraws from friends and family. The ex-Army engineer who sleeps 90 minutes a night and drinks liquor every morning.
The Air Force veteran who takes out a life insurance policy so his wife will have something after he kills himself.
I have interviewed each of these Omahans, and many more like them. It becomes easy to recognize the darting eyes and the talk of nightmares, the fear of loud noises and the fondness for fast cars. It becomes easy to sense the churning, grinding, ever-present tension.
But for whatever reason — maybe military culture, maybe tradition — it hasn't always been easy for the Pentagon to see post-traumatic stress disorder with clear eyes.
As recently as five years ago, right around the time the military suicide rate began to rise, some military officers were still publicly denying PTSD existed. Many more privately doubted it, equating it with weakness.
Which is why respected leaders like Ellis are so important if the military is ultimately going to win this war against itself.
It's why groups like an Omaha nonprofit called At Ease — the reason Ellis visited the CenturyLink Center last week — are so crucial if we want our younger veterans to avoid the cycle of family trouble, substance abuse, violence, unemployment and even homelessness that became the hallmarks for those who came back invisibly wounded from Vietnam.
Here's the scariest number of all: 349 active-duty members of the military committed suicide last year. That's a record number. That's a number that far exceeds the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan last year.
“Time isn't on our side,” says Scott Anderson, the founder of At Ease. “Bad things happen to untreated people with post-traumatic stress.”
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
At Ease has partnered with Lutheran Family Services to treat around 400 active-duty service men and women, veterans and family members affected by PTSD or related mental health problems in the past four years. Often the treatment is free.
The nonprofit lets people seek help anonymously, eliminating a barrier that airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers often cite when asked in surveys why they don't get treatment. Getting help through normal military channels will cause their commanding officers to think of them as weak, they reply. It will hurt their military careers.
Paul Greenwell, At Ease's program supervisor and a Nebraska National Guard member, says he still sees the eye rolls from fellow Guard members when officers tell them they can get PTSD treatment without worrying.
“Are things getting better? Yes. Is the stigma gone? No,” he says.
At Ease has opened offices in Bellevue and Grand Island, and a new office in North Platte is on the way. The Omaha nonprofit is also partnering on research that might eventually harness smartphone technology and allow veterans suffering from severe PTSD — the kind that makes it impossible to leave the house — to treat themselves.
But the most important fight remains recognition, At Ease therapists say. It remains crucial that men like Ellis get up on soapboxes, as Ellis did when he stepped to the dais at last week's At Ease annual fundraiser.
It matters when leaders like Ellis compare psychological injuries like PTSD to physical ones. When they argue that the United States needs a change in mind-set if we're going to properly care for the men and women at war for the past dozen years.
“It's a start,” Ellis said of efforts to combat PTSD during his keynote address. “But it is long overdue. And it is not enough.”
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