"Are you bitter?" a friend asked me. I was escorting her and her husband home after a dinner party the other night.
"No, I’m guilty," I answered immediately. We were discussing the reason for writing my new novel, Mental Hygiene.
Mental Hygiene is a coming of age story of Michael Murphy, a privileged twenty-year old Southern Californian, who has been drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. His considerable manipulative skills aid him in avoiding the warfront, and land him at Fort Jackson, SC as a Psych Tech in the Mental Hygiene clinic. Its subject matter is loosely based on my own experiences at the same time and place.
Mental Hygiene is a moral tale as well as a coming of age story, the moral being that no one gets away unscathed. I’m guilty, but not bitter. I did it, and explaining it away doesn’t quite do. Michael Murphy’s flaws are my own, and his ultimate lesson and desperation are familiar.
As illustrated in Mental Hygiene countless times, the military’s procedure for handling mental illness was then, and appears to be now, one of processing in lieu of evaluation. Depending on the number of soldiers necessary, the criteria for acceptable behavior varies. In the Vietnam era, the draft quota was barely enough to keep up with the demand for troops. By the time I was drafted and stationed at Ft. Jackson, there was a joke circulating around the clinic. You didn’t have to be breathing, only warm, to qualify.
Recruitment standards have been lowered over the past two years in the voluntary enlistment military due to increased demand for personnel to fight an increasingly unpopular war. Mental instability, drug addiction, and alcohol problems are largely ignored in the recruitment process. A 1997 law requires the military to assess the mental health of all deploying troops. That assessment consists of a single, self-reported question: "During the past year, have you sought counseling or care for your mental health?"
Congress ordered the Pentagon to tighten mental health screening after a 2006 series in The Hartford Courant reported that the military had deployed and retained mentally ill service members. New policies required that troops with mental health disorders demonstrate a "pattern of stability, without significant symptoms," for at least three months prior to deployment. But there were no significant changes in pre-deployment screening as of October 2009, and the inquiry into whether service members had sought mental health care remains the only mental health question on the pre-deployment form.
As I read reports and studies about the manner in which mental health is addressed in today’s military, I realize that nothing has really changed. I’m back at Fort Jackson in a Basic Training Dayroom ignoring what’s right in front of me, someone who has no business carrying a loaded weapon.
….. and it’s like John Fogerty singing his song:
"Did that voice inside you say I've heard it all beforeIt's like Deja Vu all over again"