Tuesday, April 28, 2015

U.S. Military Veteran Suicides: Problems Yet To Come

Dale Matson

“When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide, then you have a serious problem.” –Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

Where do these numbers come from? They come from the Veteran’s Administration Report of 2012. . These numbers do not include Texas and California statistics.

As a Vietnam era veteran (stationed in Fairbanks Alaska), it grieves me deeply that these men have perished in such great numbers. As a retired psychologist, I am well aware that suicides are underreported events also, so the true number is even greater. I would briefly like to discuss why I believe these numbers are significantly higher than the general population and my concerns about the future.

Certainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a major factor with returning combat veterans. Symptoms can include flashbacks, depression, anxiety and drug abuse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics indicates that about twelve percent of combat veterans suffer from PTSD.
Although the current statistics on Vietnam combat veterans is higher at fifteen percent, it is possible that more time has passed for symptoms to surface and/or be acknowledged.

When the numbers are evaluated, an underlying predisposition to PTSD is cited as one factor. However, I think this is less the case for someone who would volunteer to go in harms way. It would be interesting to see the breakdown of those who suffered from PTSD in Vietnam who were volunteers versus those who were drafted and served in combat.

One aspect to modern war going back to Vietnam was the higher survival rate of casualties because of them being med evacuated compared to previous wars. These “wounded warriors” came home missing limbs and suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a higher percentage of the returning veterans. They were both maimed on the outside and damaged on the inside.

I believe the civilian attitude toward our military has varied over the years. Even those opposed to the several modern conflicts still support the troops that fight in these conflicts. I think this was in part because of President Reagan support for veterans and the overwhelming victory in Operation Desert Storm. General Norman Schwarzkopf who served in Viet Nam was determined to reverse the public perception that our military was inept.

Ask most Vietnam era veterans and we will say that we were increasingly disliked as the war progressed. We were portrayed in films and TV as mentally disturbed and dishonorable. We were not looked upon as returning WWII heroes. Many Vietnam era veterans including me left their military service off their resume when applying for jobs. The civilian attitude seems to be shifting back toward disrespect for the military.

Additionally, there is the same morale and malaise problem setting in with the modern troops that happened in the later years of the Vietnam war. There is the same problem with mission creep and confusion about the outcome today as in Vietnam. 

Another factor that I see as an issue worth paying attention to is the fact that we have always had a professional military but we have not had so many volunteer soldiers recycled into a combat zone so often. The Navy Seal Robert O'Neill retired after serving only sixteen of 20 years needed for a pension. He claimed that after so many missions, he was worn out. He noted that the number of missions should be factored into the 20-year requirement to reduce it. The multiple mission volunteer soldiers are beginning to leave and retire. There is no doubt that PTSD will be an increasing problem not properly dealt with. As the saying goes, “Pay me now or pay me later”.   


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Backpackers And Street People

Dale Matson

If you live in a city of any size, you often encounter street people as you attempt to negotiate the intersections. Often they will have a shopping cart piled with their earthly possessions. A hand lettered, weathered cardboard sign asking for help is often held up as an extra visual to remind you of their plight. Actually, it is hard work standing on a corner hours on end day after day. You can't help but notice the dry skin and calloused hands as you press a few coins into their hands. They usually respond with a "God bless you" with a voice compromised by cigarettes and whiskey. They spend the night sleeping on the streets. Many bed down in the landscape shrubbery at the freeway entrances and exits. They are down to the basics in life, food, clothing, shelter and daily survival. Some are there by choice and there is a certain type of “no responsibilities” freedom. Most however, are there because of struggles with mental illness or drug dependence or both.

There is another lifestyle that reminds me of this. I am a backpacker and find a kind of strange kinship with the homeless folks. The homeless have gone ‘off trail’ in life. While street people live out of their shopping carts, backpackers carry their homes on their backs. Their packs provide clothing, shelter, food and daily survival. For the backpacker, the experience is time limited. For the street person, their life is an endless purgatory of moving from place to place and living from day to day.

The backpacker is a gypsy of sorts too and in the wilderness to become reconnected to nature and to him or herself. Navigating through the wilderness and over mountain passes cultivates a sense of competence and reminds the backpacker that if he is not careful, he could be possessed by his possessions. Why in the world would someone own a house and need to rent a storage locker too? How much do we really need? I seem to have two or three of everything. Why?

Backpacking is like being a street person because it is a divesting and a prioritization process. Much of my thoughts while backpacking are directed at finding the next water source. I am often thirsty. You can never seem to get enough calories (or oxygen) aboard on a long day ascending a mountain pass. Where is that next boulder in a shady spot that my pack will rest on too when I sit down? I still remember the hamburger and fries I had ten years ago in Tuolumne Meadows slowly savored after five days on the John Muir Trail.

This brings me back to the cardboard signs held aloft with expectant hope asking for money for food. Street people are plagued by the same problems as backpackers and I'm sure hygiene begins to look and smell similar after about five days on the trail for the backpacker.

When it comes down to it then, where do the similarities end between backpacking and being homeless? I supposed there are scores of reasons why folks backpack. Some like to fish the alpine lakes. Some like the quest aspect of navigation and endurance. I like the beauty and carry photographic gear with me. Some like the social aspect of a shared experience. Some just want to get away from a clock and a job.

Some however, are driven into the wilderness not by wanderlust but by personal demons that nip at the heals of their souls. These reasons include postponing life decisions, lacking a sense of personal meaning or purpose or just bugging out and running away.

Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless are examples of street people in the wilderness. I have been approached by PCT through hikers asking for food. There is a desperate driven pace for some of these folks.

The wilderness and the streets are places for some to find themselves and for others to lose themselves. Both backpackers and street people know how thin the social veneer really is and how far away the backcountry ranger is if you need help. And sometimes even the backcountry ranger is lost forever too. 

Trail name "Padre"       

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Alaskan Bush People

Dale Matson

I suppose any show with the name “Alaska” would get my attention and there are plenty of shows with the Alaska theme. I was drafted in 1967 and after my training; I was stationed at Ft. Wainwright near Fairbanks. I had an opportunity to travel and saw unmapped wilderness, magnificent sights along the coast, the inside passage and the interior on the Alaska Railroad between Fairbanks and Anchorage. I had considered returning there someday but my path took me elsewhere. The Alaska state flower is the Forget-me-not and I haven’t forgotten.

There is a certain appeal to living “off the grid” for many folks in a complicated world. However, it is a primitive life, requires resourcefulness and can be downright dangerous. There are participants and there are spectators. Most of the audience is spectators; wannabe wilderness folks. I am kind of a combination since I have a mountain cabin and spend a considerable time backpacking in the Sierras in the summer.

I realize that one cannot be or at least, remain a rookie for long living in the wilderness. The wilderness is at once beautiful but is also unforgiving. I am reminded of Jeremiah Johnson who needed to apprentice with the experienced mountain man Bear Claw. I watched Marty Meierotto get himself into and out of trouble in the Alaskan wilderness in the “Mountain Men” series. To me, he is an ultimate survivalist who is skilled and can actually make a living trapping. He has rituals that help ensure but don't guarantee his survival. He is like the adventurer Mike Horn who circumnavigated the Arctic Circle by himself. Everything must be done a certain way in a certain order. There must always be a backup scenario. What do you do if your tent burns down and it is 60 below zero?

I began watching Alaskan Bush People last year. At first, I thought they were an incompetent version of the Kilcher Family from the series “Alaska The Last Frontier”. There were some questions in my mind as the series stumbled from one disaster to another over the first season. Where they really a family? Their theme should have been, “If it weren't for bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all”. I really cringed when their boat sank. Why did town members help them build a cabin and why were they scared off? There were a lot of unanswered questions and it got worse when I read they had been charged with criminal activity. Did this family really belong in a Ketchikan trailer park living on welfare?

And then it happened. I watched this mom (Ami) and dad (Bill) with seven children develop personalities. I guess if you were writing a story, it would be called “character development”. Each of the children seemed to take on a charming persona. I began to like them as people. Were they eccentric? Absolutely. Were the boys strong? Yes, they all looked like they spent lots of time in a fitness center.

So they began to grow on me and I saw the teamwork, the loyalty and the enthusiasm all of them demonstrated. What I did not see was any malice or cynicism. They bought into this lifestyle and are generally enjoying themselves except times like when they are shivering in their log hut without enough heat.

They demonstrated that they could work as a team over and over. They built a new cabin displaying their skills and teamwork. The family did the ‘heavy lifting’ time and time again. There are those that dislike these people but I suggest those people look in the mirror at themselves.

The Browns are very much like the Kilchers minus the backhoes, bulldozers and barge. I don't know what lies in the future for this family but hope they make it even if they are no longer in front of a camera.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Nellie Lake Day Hike 2015

Dale Matson

For the particulars on this hike please see last year’s hike that I did in late May of 2014. It is rather sad that I am a month earlier this year with the hike and have about the same amount of snow. Anyway, I have a few different photographs this year. Last year, I used a 35mm/f2.8 lens on my Sony A7 and this year, I used a 55mm/f1.8 and an 18mm/f3.5. There were no bugs on this hike.

I was a tad slower this year but took my time. There were no others on the trail the entire time I was out. There is a chance of more snow/rain next week. Let’s hope. I rewarded myself at the store in Lakeshore with two Snickers bars, a bag of chips and a large diet Pepsi. (I had to stay awake for the 1.5 hour drive home!  Here are the photographs.

Click On Photographs To Enlarge