Ilona Meagher had never met anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder. She didn’t have any family members returning from Iraq, and she didn’t have military training. However, this 41-year-old envisioned the families torn apart by soldiers who, unable to cope with their memories of Iraq, took their own lives.
Ilona Meagher had never met anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder. She didn’t have any family members returning from Iraq, and she didn’t have military training.
In other words, there was no particular reason Meagher, a former flight attendant who lives in Caledonia, would become a passionate advocate for American soldiers struggling to adapt to life after war.
About Ilona Meagher
Family: Husband, Tom Meagher
Hobbies: Photography, cooking, reading, playing card games, gardening, entertaining and running. My husband and I also spend as much time as we can at our cabin in the North Woods of Wisconsin, going for walks, canoeing, fishing and playing board games.
Except she saw the issue for more than its statistics. She did more than read a newspaper article and think, “Such a shame.” Rather, this 41-year-old envisioned the families torn apart by soldiers who, unable to cope with their memories of Iraq, took their own lives.
Meagher understood what those families were going through. In 2000, she lost her big sister to suicide. Her sister wasn’t a veteran, and she didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder. But a loss is a loss, and families mourn for their loved ones just the same.
That’s why Meagher has dedicated her work — raising awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans — to her sister’s memory.
“I realize that the work must be my way of trying to make something — anything — good come out of a really difficult time for me and my family,” she said. “I see military families doing the same thing after their loved one commits suicide. A family that’s never been publicly active before is moved to do whatever they can do to see that no one else has to suffer the same loss, walk the same dark pathway.”
Today, Meagher has written a book, “Moving a Nation to Care,” on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder among returning veterans. She maintains a blog and a database of post-traumatic stress-related incidents, which has been tapped by The Los Angeles Times, Playboy and The New Yorker. Her work has caught the attention of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.
Still, she spends her days in her home office, continuing to track case after case of soldiers who returned home, but whose minds couldn’t seem to leave the Middle East. Even now, as she pursues a journalism degree from Northern Illinois University, Meagher knows her work is far from over.
“As much as this project has changed my life and makes me feel as though I’m contributing something valuable, I’d be more than happy never to have to find another case of suicide or violence or murder,” she said. “I’d love to tack on a ‘The End’ sign to the bottom of the database and move on.
“But we’re not there yet. Unfortunately, not by a long shot.”
Q&A with Ilona Meagher
QUESTION: What compelled you to do so much research on post-traumatic stress disorder?
ANSWER: I had been following the news religiously and reading a lot about how things were going in (Afghanistan and Iraq). One day, I happened to come across an article written in Seattle Weekly. Closing out the article was a list of really tragic incidents that had taken place on or near (Washington-based) Fort Lewis after troops had returned from Iraq.
It was the first time I came across a group of incidents, a cluster. Grouping them together was powerful. … It made it real clear it’s not just the soldiers themselves that are affected by their combat experiences, but families are, too.
I began wondering if this was an anomaly. Were these obvious reintegration problems only happening at Fort Lewis? Were only troops returning to Fort Lewis slipping through the cracks and ending their lives — and the lives of others — in a really violent fashion like this, or were there other cases as well?
Q: At that point, where did your research take you?
A: I started searching, using the Internet.
In a few weeks, by Sept. 23, 2005, I’d collected my first 30 incidents and shared them with others in some of the online communities that I participated in. The next month, I updated it with others I’d found.
That second posting of mine caught the attention of the citizen journalism group ePluribus Media. They told me that the data was really important and asked if I wanted to work together with them to create a public database of such cases.
In December 2005, three months after I read that Seattle Weekly article, we unveiled the PTSD Timeline. It is basically a database of Afghanistan and Iraq veteran post-traumatic stress-related incidents. As far as we know, we are the only group tracking cases of post-combat reintegration difficulties, making them publicly available for further research, study and reporting.
Q: How have you gone about taking this from a project by one woman to something that can be used nationally?
A: The Internet has really opened up the world to all of us. It’s a powerful tool. If you have an issue that you feel strongly about, which I did, you can make your voice heard. Especially if your issue is something that’s underreported, you can decide to write online or blog about the issue.
Q: How has your life changed because of this project?
A: My work with ePluribus Media brought me a lot of opportunities to write articles. I went to journalism conferences and networked with other citizen journalists, as well as regular media types. I soaked it all up and returned to school to study journalism at Northern Illinois University.
Q: How does post-traumatic stress disorder affect soldiers differently today than it did in previous generations?
A: Biologically, there is a physical need for soldiers in combat to be able to protect themselves and defend their battle buddies. They do this by attacking the enemy.
That’s easy to do if the enemy is clearly marked and standing opposite you, pointing a gun at you. Traditional battlefront soldiers got an outlet to the stress that built up in their bodies. The act of literally squeezing the trigger of their weapon offers a very real physical release to stress that a lot of our soldiers today in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t get.
When an (improvised explosive device) blows up a convoy on the side of the road, who do you fire at? There’s no one there, and if the enemy is there, how do they know who they are? They’re not clearly marked; they’re wearing the same civilian clothes as the rest of the residents in the area. So, physically, today’s soldiers don’t have a way to release their natural, physical stress when they’re attacked.
Q: What is particularly tough about today’s battlefield for soldiers?
A: Mentally, it’s a whole different matter. Unlike Vietnam, where there was a lot of guerrilla fighting, a lot of Iraq’s firefights and attacks take place in urban areas. There are tons of innocent people milling around.
That means there’s a lot of collateral damage. And there are a lot more chances for mistakes to happen that can really do a number on troops. For example, if a car is racing toward you at a checkpoint, and it will not stop — troops have to defend themselves and fire at the vehicle. Sometimes, the vehicle is filled with families and not terrorists; they just simply misunderstood the instructions and wound up dead.
While this type of accident is stressful in the field, usually this is the kind of situation that ends up returning to haunt troops once they’re back home with their own families.
When things have quieted down, and they’re alone with their own thoughts, these are often the types of incidents that they can’t push down.
Q: How do you believe your work is making a difference to American soldiers?
A: I think the greatest need that my book fills is the need for troops and military families who are dealing with combat post-traumatic stress disorder to hear that at least some of us civilians are paying attention.
Many complain that they go off to experience the most powerful event in their lives, that they are fighting for their country, and then when they come back home, most of us seem to care more about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. They don’t hear us talking amongst ourselves about the war. They don’t see us showing all that much concern about their issues and needs. It can be pretty demoralizing for them.
Q: Why should the American public care more about post-traumatic stress disorder?
A: Society has a responsibility to open its heart to these issues, but far too many of us are too busy living our lives as though we’re not at war. That attitude — which has been conditioned in us by our leaders who refuse to ask anything of the American people — can make military families feel abandoned. … Without a united effort by the majority of the citizens of this country, we’re just going to keep hearing of more and more troops slipping through the cracks.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work?
A: Hearing from the troops and military families, as well as seeing that other citizens who don’t really have any skin in the game care enough to come into the fold with us. That’s really exciting to see.
I would love to find others, preferably in the area, who might want to help with the project because there’s always so much to do, and never enough of us to do it. There’s no money in it, the work is often thankless and difficult, but it is rewarding in so many ways.