Sunday, August 7, 2011

Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz[1]

We take great pride in sending or younger man and woman on combat missions to different parts of the world. We have welcomed back troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The injured are handled differently, and the psychosocial support for the next of kin and extended family are not clearly articulated.  At times we have had to receive the remains of fallen heroes. On at least twenty occasions in the last three years, I have witnessed how the rites of mourning are at times not culturally, linguistically or psychosocially appropriate. There are at least three basic moments that support is needed: (1) the mechanics of handling the notification, (2) the funeral, and (3) the support received by the next of kin and extended family after the event.

The notification is frequently handled in two segments; first a warrior shows up to the home of record, gives the news of the loss and leaves. The second part is the arrival of a chaplain, and a liaison to assist the family in preparing the funeral services. In that very first private moment where “shock” sets in, the television cameras show up and begin a process of intrusive inquiry.  The respect paid to the grieving next of kin is a “camera on you face”. The format is that they show the next of kin crying, they show someone reading a recent email, and that ends the appreciation of a grateful nation for the sacrifice of one of its hero’s.

The funeral services come out of the “standard book” and culminate with a folded flag handed to the next of kin. That folded flag signifies the sacrifice of the fallen warrior, and the beginning of a new life of loneliness and despair for the next of kin and the extended family.

The support phase because of its length and complexity needs to be carefully planned. The official support system is located in a military installation, the Veterans Administration, and the Office of the member of Congress. The focus is on how the insurance monies are invested on behalf of the survivor. There are no visits to the home. Veterans Administration is located in the capitol city and there are limited outreach services. Local government doesn’t have the wherewithal for serving the survivors needs and rely on Veteran’s organizations for support. On all cases the focus is survival, the spiritual and psychosocial support needed available to the survivors is limited or non-existent. I was told by a government official recently “we are well prepared to handle the funeral, but can’t assist the survivors for an extended period of time that is the role of the family and the church”.

To continue to expand and fine-tune psychosocial support programs for the survivors of heroes I suggest that we study the words of a great Soldier and Statesman called Pericles. He teaches us in his Funeral Oration after the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides (c.460/455-c.399 BCE): Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46):

"Comfort, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown. If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad”.

[1] Dr. Prewitt Diaz is a Visiting Professor in the School of Law of the University of Puerto Rico, and Director of the Disaster Law Center. He was awarded the 2008 APA International Humanitarian Award.  He is a trainer for disaster mental health professionals and chaplains in Puerto Rico. 

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