The Wages of War: The Unpaid Debt Owed to Our Veterans

This Memorial Day in particular has me feeling some kind of way; not just because I am keenly aware of those lives lost to ensure my freedom, but also because I am acutely aware of those lives indelibly changed as a result of their service to this great country.  My own service in Afghanistan as a civilian has given me an entirely different perspective on the combat experience. On what it means to be prepared for war; and what it means to go to war unprepared (like so many of our young men during Vietnam). I understand just a bit more about their sacrifice. I know what it is to go to bed with one eye open, with your weapons and ammo and boots near you. To be ever vigilant, never at ease, and always on the ready.  To have your heart pound almost out of your chest and fight to keep your wits about you the very first time you feel the impact of an IED blast. To be separated from your loved ones for a really long time.  But I don’t know what it’s like to have to fight for your life. Or to kill to protect your life.  Or to see the gory horrors of war.

And so because of my experience, I have a newfound respect for all combat veterans; but especially those who continue to fight the silent war.  The silent war is the war inside their minds. It is a war waged largely against their own thoughts, memories, feelings.  It is a war against habits and behaviors that many implement to numb the pain. It is the isolation that they enact because they feel that no one understands, or that they cannot be totally open and honest and trusting of anyone, and because they just don’t want anyone to know the depths of their pain. They don’t want to deal with the stigma. The stigma is real. For a soldier even more so.

As much as we say we honor them, we dishonor them and their sacrifices. We turn our heads when we see a homeless guy with a nappy hat, and a tattered jacket, and a dirty sign saying, “Hungry veteran. Please help me eat.”  We cross to the other side of the street when we see the woman mumbling to herself.  We forget that it was war that contributed to this social problem. And we forget that our brothers and sisters who were prepared to lay down their lives, they are our problem.

No veteran should struggle with mental illness, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, or hunger following his or her service. So many of them have been adversely impacted by their combat experiences. We still don’t really know how many Vietnam-era vets struggle with PTSD, but certainly our best guess pales in comparison to the true numbers. Four decades later, we now know that a large majority (THE vast majority) of Vietnam vets struggle(d) with chronic PTSD symptoms. Four out of five Vietnam veterans reported active PTSD symptoms when interviewed 20 to 25 years after that war. Indeed, I recently interviewed a Vietnam-era vet who sobbed as he recounted story after story of his war experience in vivid detail just like it was yesterday. He had never spoken of his experiences in theatre. They rarely if ever do.

Why do I do what I do? Why is it so important to shed light on the issues facing our veterans? Because the rates of suicide amongst veterans are astounding; in one year it was 2 times the number of suicides in the US population writ large.  In 2014, 20 veterans per day committed suicide. I do what I do because:

  • 50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment.
  • Rates of post-traumatic stress are greater for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than for prior conflicts
  • 19% of veterans may have a traumatic brain injury (TBI); and 7% may have PTSD and TBI
  • More active duty personnel die by their own hand than from combat.
  • It is estimated that 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans have PTSD and/or depression.

There is a consequence to waging war, and it is a costly one. You cannot place a price on mental health, or psychological wholeness. Nevertheless, we owe this debt and it must be paid in full. How can we ensure that we do right by the men and women who have valiantly served?  We must demand that Congress allocate the funds to providing state of the art services, to hiring the best and brightest clinicians and researchers, and to creating the infrastructure to properly and adequately care for our wounded warriors.

To do your part — to truly thank them for their sacrifice, and to honor those lives lost for your freedom and mine, contact your state representatives to Congress via letter or phone, and demand that this be a priority.

We owe it to those who laid their lives down for us — to take care of their brothers and sisters-in-arms who are still fighting a war alone.

Be well,

The Good Dr. Nik


Dr. Nicole Alford is a DMV-based clinical psychologist, writer and prolific blogger, teacher, media commentator and compassionate activist working to raise mental health awareness and end stigma. For more information on her professional services, view her website at, and follow her @TheGoodDrNik on all social media platforms.



No Time To Be Silent

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In the wake of the massacres of Brother Alton Sterling and Brother Philando Castile, both fatally shot within a 24 hour time period, this is no time to be silent.

Tuesday, in Louisiana, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was fatally shot as he tussled with two white officers outside a convenience store in a predominantly black neighborhood. The shooting was caught on tape and went viral online. The next day in Minnesota, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot to death during a traffic stop. His girlfriend posted a video of the aftermath live on Facebook, saying he had been shot “for no apparent reason” while reaching for his wallet, as an officer had asked.  And then the malefic reply to both events by Micah Johnson, a combat veteran who killed five officers and wounded seven others, in addition to two civilians. Like many I found myself struggling to make sense of just what is going on.

I found myself at a loss for words.  Nothing to say.  Nothing to post.  Nothing to write.  And if I am honest, not wanting to feel.  Because to feel would leave me overcome with a tidal wave of grief, anger, fear, and God only knows what else.  It would leave me to acknowledge the sad reality.  And why acknowledge reality when denial is such a wonderful thing?  And when ignorance really is bliss.  But alas, the events of the past few days, weeks, months, years can no longer be ignored.  The reality must be acknowledged.  After having said nothing about these tragedies, I realize that this is not time to be silent.

I know that after 400 years of inhumane treatment, of being likened to animals, raped and lynched and murdered and put down and passed over and ignored like the invisible man Ellison wrote about — takes its toll.  I know that in this 21st century we still face situations reminiscent of the Jim Crow days of old; occurring under the guise of “progress.” I know that there have been more police killings of Black people in the last year (2015) than were lynched in the worst year of Jim Crow (1892).  I know that in 2015, killings of Blacks by police accounted for 26% of deaths, and that we are on the trajectory in 2016 to likely surpass that number. I know that our community is angry.  And I know that anger is a righteous response.  Justified.  No one can question that.  But what we do with this anger, and how we respond to this situation will dictate whether we live up to the truth of who we are. Will we rise?

I know that we are the descendants of Kings and Queens.  And we are warriors.  Make no mistake, this is war.  It is a battle against archetypal spirits of evil, and a history entrenched with maltreatment and injustice. Unconscious biases and conscious discrimination have existed for as long as we have been in America. Therefore, our weapons must not be physical.  We must not resort to the id-mentality of tit for tat; a life for a life.  No, we must be strategic.  We must be thoughtful.  We must recall our past victories. We must deftly use our powers, and those of us in power must not be silent. I repeat: THOSE OF US IN POWER MUST NOT BE SILENT.

There are a few key members of our community whose voices reverberate. Their platforms are global and they are tethered to the purse strings of Wall Street.  Like puppet masters they can pull a string and poof — stocks rise or fall immediately and exponentially.  These African Americans must not be silent.

The Black church, which has historically been the backbone of the African-American community, and THE instrument of mobilization and leadership for social and political change, must not be silent.  It is time for Black pastors and the Black church as a whole to rise and take its rightful place as the leading agent of sociopolitical change, healing, and reconciliation.  The Black church can and must play a key role in setting the stage and the tone for our community moving forward.  The church must not be silent.  Silence = death.

And last, you, you, and you must not be silent.  Do not disenfranchise yourself.  Exercise the rights that so many fought so hard to ensure that you have.  Speak, write, blog, picket, lobby, boycott, and for God’s sake VOTE.  Your voice is mighty.  The pen is mighty.  The dollar is mighty. And together we are mighty. Once we realize this; once we truly realize who we are and the power we have individually and collectively, it is then that we will truly overcome.


Dr. Nik


Reprinted with permission from Harvest Magazine.

Dr. Nik is a Clinical Psychologist, Life-ologist, author and educator in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.  Follow her on Twitter @theGoodDrNik.

How to Cope With National Tragedy

The recent events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas have left many feeling some kinda way.  While some of us don’t know exactly what we are feeling, others can readily identify the one or various emotions they might be experiencing; and some may be experiencing emotions intensely.  As if the events of the past few days have not been tragic enough, we have been unable to escape the reminders, and are left to relive the first moment we heard or saw news of these events.  Our brains are being constantly bombarded with print and streaming images of civilians and police officers being assaulted, shot at and dying with not a free moment to process the apparent dichotomies.  For the record, my goal here is not to use this as a forum to air my personal beliefs; but rather, to use this opportunity to help us deal with what I have termed trauma by media.

Trauma by media is a cluster of symptoms experienced as a result of secondhand exposure, (i.e. indirect exposure), to a life threatening or fatal event via print or broadcast media.  Symptoms can range from anger and rage, from sadness to frank depression, from worry to anxiety and fear, to nightmares and more.  And these can lead to sleep difficulties, the inability to focus one’s attention on matters unrelated to the event, engaging in maladaptive behaviors to express one’s frustration and upset or numb one’s emotions, and can impact the ability to function effectively in one’s day-to-day life.

Make no mistake, we’ve been here before.  But we’ve not implemented the lessons learned.  As a nation we became vicariously traumatized during 9-11 due to the constant media coverage of the day’s events.  Notwithstanding the impact of the tragic loss of lives and the terror that the nation felt, seeing and hearing the stories over and over again solidified the horror in the minds of many and crystallized the trauma in our brains.  The graphic images of people jumping of out windows are forever etched in my mind; like they are for many of you.  As a result, there are many who can no longer see images or even talk about 9-11 without it evoking strong visceral reactions — and we were not even there nor did we suffer a personal loss.

Unfortunately, given the state of world affairs, there is  no lack of newsworthy stories, and the future is ripe for horrific and mind-boggling tragedies to report on.  In light of this, how do you keep yourself reasonably well-adjusted, able to focus, and not given to the emotional ups and downs that these tragic times and unfortunate events can cause?

  1. Tune out:  I think this is the single most helpful piece of advice that I can offer.  Turn off the TV and/or radio, disconnect from all social media, and just take a break from the non-stop coverage of the event.  Give your mind a break from the constant bombardment of images and information, and give your brain the opportunity to make sense of the confusion.
  2. Don’t isolate: Isolation, while needed at times to refuel and recharge, is never a good idea when one is in a state of emotional crisis.  So resist the urge to isolate yourself.  Talking about the event with others is a way to process what has happened in a healthy way.  But, be careful about engaging in very heated discussions or debates.  The goal here is to move towards a state of emotional acceptance and to stabilize oneself from the state of mental disequilibrium; NOT to get oneself so riled up that you are worse off than before!  Being around others and doing something social can also serve to distract you from all that is going on.
  3. Resist the urge to numb:  Your mind will want to forget.  You will want to be out of the uncomfortable emotional place that you are in.  Resist the urge to numb your feelings using alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, or any other extreme behavior.  This will only cause other difficulties down the road.
  4.  Get involved:  Doing something helpful and in assistance to a person or group directly affected, or picking up their cause, can be cathartic and emotionally healing for all involved. For example, many people volunteered their time, energy, and/or money after 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and other national tragedies.  Organizing a food drive, a clothing drive, a blood drive, etc. were ways that people channeled their grief into compassion and action.
  5. Be part of the solution:  In the present case, there are many adaptive ways to channel the anger and frustration that many are feeling.  Mobilize or take part in peaceful protests, write or blog how you feel, lobby or start a petition, and be a part of the process of political change.
  6. Tap into your spirituality:  People oftentimes find a sense of peace, solace, and acceptance by tapping into their faith.  Be it through prayer, meditation, consultation with spiritually like-minded people or with your religious leader, this can be a very healthy way to make emotional peace with tragedy.  While we might never know the answer to the question of ‘why,’ the ‘how’ to move forward positively may become readily apparent.
  7. Seek counseling: If symptoms persist for more than a week or so without improvement or your functioning worsens with time, consider seeking mental health counseling.  For some who have histories of trauma from childhood, military combat, or other life events, these types of nationwide wounds can resurface unresolved issues.  Your health insurer’s website, your state department of mental health, or your state board of psychology would be initial places to look for a licensed practitioner in your area.  Your primary care physician, and even friends might be other places to start.  The point here is to stay ahead of the curve, and find professional assistance as soon as possible.


Nicole M. Alford, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Life-ologist, lecturer and educator in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.