Politics & Policy

Hold the Hydrangeas

Show some gratitude this Mother's Day.

This year American consumers are expected to spend an average of $138.63 each on flowers, cards, and gifts for Mother’s Day, for a grand total of $15.8 billion.

That’s a whole lotta hydrangeas.

Anna Jarvis never had such excess in mind when in 1914, her idea to honor mothers resulted in Congress passing a joint resolution establishing Mother’s Day. In fact, she despised the commercialization that followed and once was arrested for her rowdy protests. She merely wanted to honor her own mother, who was considered a community hero for her efforts after the Civil War toward improving sanitary conditions and helping American families to reconcile.

What Jarvis hated is now the norm. A mom who doesn’t receive a card or flowers is likely to feel let down. Then there are other mothers for whom flowers are of little concern, who gather on websites to exchange stories and sympathy for the sons and daughters lost to or damaged by war.

One of those is Oklahoma’s 2006 Mother of the Year, Cynde Collins-Clark, about whom I’ve written previously in connection with her son, Joe, an Iraq-war veteran who returned from his tour of duty in 2004 with severe post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).

Collins-Clark is a hero, too. Not only has she helped her son get back on his feet, but she’s done yeoman’s work to help other veterans and their families.

During a recent visit to Oklahoma City, I met with Joe and his mother, a perky, blithe spirit whose eyes frequently well with tears. Joe is a tall, clean-cut young man who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but he’s not like other 24-year-olds. The day we met in a hotel restaurant was one of the few times Joe, who kept his back to the wall, had left his house since returning from Iraq. For nearly two years, he didn’t even leave his bedroom.

Although he is still disabled and unable to work, Joe is on the mend, thanks in part to a booklet he has written for others. Available through a website his mother created, “The Endless Journey Home” describes what PTSD looks like, how to find help and how to navigate the Veterans Administration.

Both Joe and his mother, a licensed professional counselor, are quick to note that the VA is full of caring, qualified people, but they assert that “processes” within the bureaucracy need improvement.

For starters, most veterans have no idea how to enter the system. Once inside, they’ll likely discover that there aren’t enough professionals familiar with PTSD symptoms to properly diagnose the problem. Joe says he was misdiagnosed twice — with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder — and prescribed addictive medications that exacerbated his depression and anxiety.

That experience prompted Collins-Clark to work toward expanding the base of qualified counselors available to returning veterans, as well as to push for more “in theater” counseling. Although military men and women do have access to mental-health counseling while in a war zone, few take advantage of the service for fear of tarnishing their records or losing their jobs.

Consequently, recognizing the trauma of war is often belated. Although exact figures are hard to pin down, at least 20,000 Vietnam War veterans are believed to have committed suicide (and possibly many more who didn’t leave notes). The suicide rate among Iraq veterans is twice the rate among non-veterans, a CBS investigation recently found.

Help is on the way. A promising new initiative to connect veterans and their families with free mental-health counseling was recently launched by Washington, D.C.-area psychologist Barbara V. Romberg. Through a nonprofit group called Give an Hour, several hundred licensed psychologists, social workers, and counselors in 40 states have volunteered to donate at least one hour a week for a year to veterans in need.

What Romberg and Collins-Clark are doing is what the senior Jarvis might have done. And honoring that spirit is what Jarvis’s daughter had in mind when she first suggested that people attach a white carnation to their lapel on the second Sunday in May.

Cards and flowers are nice, but $15.8 billion would go a long way toward helping veterans and their families. In lieu of flowers, perhaps a donation to a veterans group would be a more fitting bouquet to honor all the mothers who have given their most precious gift to the rest of us.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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