Wednesday, February 10 , 2016, 8:39 am | Fair 51º

Ken Williams: Real-Life ‘Hunger Games’ and Our Addiction to War

Visit to VA Hospital a reality check that effects of combat are far from fiction

By Ken Williams |

Walking into the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles was depressing. Having driven through the city in the middle of a lightning storm punctuated with hail and slowed by heavy traffic had me already on edge. But it wasn’t only the weather.

Whenever I find myself in the VA system, my blood pressure becomes hijacked to a different place, a different time. Seeing all those vets there for medical services and realizing just how vast the complex is brings home the real and ongoing cost of our nation’s wars. I hate waiting in the best of circumstances, but this wasn’t one of them. Having arrived 15 minutes early per instructions, I had already waited 45 minutes to see the doctor and still I sat.

I decided enough is enough. I went up to the reception desk and asked, “How much longer?” The receptionist was kind and helpful, but the wound was delivered when she spoke: “Only one doctor for the whole clinic will be seeing patients.” I was to be called next, she assured us. “Besides, the usual wait is three hours.” That is three hours after the appointed time! I fumed. She spoke again, this time wistfully: Maybe someday the VA would be adequately funded and enough doctors would be available to treat all the vets needing help in a timely manner.

Turning around I saw another Vietnam vet. His ponytail, blue jeans, sad eyes and self-imposed isolation labeled him as such. The vets from the first Gulf War — or even better, no war —  were more animated talking to one another. The youngest vet, probably from the current wars scarring the Middle East, seemed uncomfortable, out of place and a bit scared. He resembled the mood — the character of a Vietnam vet.

Finally I was called in. On my way out I made sure to make eye contact with the young man and wished him luck. His gaze briefly rose off the floor and he said “thanks,” but without a smile, eyes darkened with waking nightmares. Slowly his stare drifted back down, probably to that other time, that other place. I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough.

Facts and impressions chased me into the dream world that night. Seeing the film The Hunger Games, a “fiction” film in which citizens allow their teen children to be taken by the Capitol for gladiator entertainment in a not-too-distant future, made me think how our society has become addicted to war. The reasons why are easy to see.

For most of us, war is a sideshow, not something personal that bleeds our souls. Only 1 percent of us are veterans of any kind, and even fewer are veterans of war. For others, it is amusement much like reality TV — something that can be turned on and turned off when we become bored. For still others, war is a tragedy best pushed aside, ignored, forgotten. After all, it isn’t our children, but others that must carry the burden and pay the price.

We have failed our sons and daughters and condemned them to a hell they cannot escape. According to the U.S. Army’s surgeon general, “More than 110,000 active-duty Army troops last year were taking prescribed antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs … .” Nearly 8 percent of active duty troops are on sedatives and 6 percent are on antidepressants. I’m sure the Marine Corps must have similar statistics.

This same report goes on to state that “about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope.” Think about what this is saying. We are doping up our children. We are using modern mood-altering drugs on our sons and daughters, and for what? Does anyone still think there is a valid reason for the ongoing war in Afghanistan? If these same statistics of workplace drug use were found here in America, it would be a scandal of epic proportion. But since this only affects the military, all we do is merely shake our heads, close our eyes and go on pretending.

Where are our democratically elected leaders on this? Who will state the obvious and ask the tough question we found ourselves asking in Vietnam: Who among us will be the last man to die in a war that has no meaning? How do we continue to inflict such pain and horror on the Marines and Army troops that they need heavy medications to cope? Who will tell them of the long wait years in the future when they try to access medical services in an underfunded VA system? (It takes on average 354 days for a V.A, disability claim to be adjudicated. One year! It took me maybe one hour to sign up when I did so. How many vets die waiting for compensation? This is the question asked in a lawsuit that the V.A. lost in the federal courts in Los Angeles.)

For many, it will already be too late. More active duty troops and Marines will kill themselves than will fall by bullets and/or bombs. And if the trajectory of the survivors of Vietnam is any road map, death by suicide, the witches’ chemical brew used in modern warfare and neglect and abandonment by society, will take an increasing toll.

I pick up the newspaper each morning fearing the worst. Fearing that our leaders have found us yet another war to send our sons and daughters to. Fearing that Washington, our Capitol, will continue to engage in a foreign policy that should be known as The Hunger Games. And sadly that we, citizens of a democratic state, will silently hand over our children like they did so in that “fiction.” We cower before power when asked to give up our most precious gift in this life. We protest more over higher taxes than the death of our children in uniform.

Reality and fiction stand on a razor blade. Welcome to the future — our present. Welcome to The Hunger Games. “And may the odds be forever in your favor.”

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

» on 04.17.12 @ 11:50 AM

Oh, come on Ken!  Are you serious?  In this day and age of fast food and Starbucks, waiting for your medical care is a put out?

Some of the problems that you describe aren’t just the purview of military veterans.  A good number of young people are struggling with depression and taking prescription drugs, or other drugs, just to cope.  And a good number take their own lives.  As recently evidenced by a classmate of my son who was, by all accounts, talented and had a future.

If you want to cry about something, why not our penchant for ignoring reality?  Our apparently inability to prepare our youngsters to deal with it?  No, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince them that if they just look the other way it might go away.

I served for twenty-four years, and saw my share of conflict.  At the end of the day what got me through it was family, faith, and a solid traditional American upbringing that didn’t pull any punches.  All of these things, by the way, are and have been under attack by the progressive liberal left.

So if you’re feeling froggy, why not take a shot at the society that failed to prepare these kids for life?

» on 04.17.12 @ 12:43 PM

Socaljay, you are were a lifer…

Did you ever serve in combat?

» on 04.17.12 @ 01:47 PM

Great article.  There are no military veterans in my family.  Why is that?  Could it be class and race related?  I know my father begged to serve in WW2, but they wouldn’t have him.  My brother would have gone to Canada in Vietnam, but fortunately his number wasn’t called.  But clearly our military veterans are few and not considered in the big business and money making of the war machine.  And yes, the VA medical system is stretched past the breaking point.  I wish I had the accurate figures handy, but a recent article in the NYTs wrote about the incredibly high suicide rate in our men and women returning from the middle east.  How terrible for the families to have their loved one return from war and then lose them to suicide.  There may be no easy answers, but it’s always been clear that WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER - ever.

» on 04.17.12 @ 02:27 PM

I believe Ken is very serious, and thank you Ken for bringing this fact to light.

It’s very simple - to serve in a war is a traumatizing experience, and there are many that served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. What else can come out of multiple deployments beside depression? To see killings day in and day out, to think you’re going to be killed, to see children killed or left as orphans; that’s enough to drive one over the edge. Combine that with our violent society and easy access to guns and you get the situations that are occurring in our country today - people taken hostage, murder-suicide, etc. As Ken noted, this is not of import to our politicians. If it was, then how could they let young people go to war knowing that many of them face certain death?

For a frank look at America’s addiction to war, see

» on 04.18.12 @ 12:30 AM

Rambler, Yes.

I want to clarify something.  I have an idea what Ken’s issues are, and I don’t categorically reject them.  I just don’t agree with his analogy.  I came out a little busted up and have visited the VA just like he has.  I was thankful that the service was provided.  But I certainly don’t believe that it’s representative of the majority or a chronic problem.

I would never compare our system to a movie the way he did.  Especially The Hunger Games.  For every fallen soldier, or one that returns with PTSD, there are ten times that many or more that handle it, just like our fathers and grandfathers did.  Teenagers settled this country and worked their behinds off to survive.  Now we live in a world of video games, social networking and cafe latte.

I feel for veterans that weren’t prepared for the reality of war and life.  It’s just simply not their fault.  Hollywood, political correctness, and congressional inquiries by activist parents have ensured that our youth is pampered and out of touch with the real world.  Ever wonder what the impact of “stress cards” in basic combat training was?  You’re seeing it.  That was my initial gut reaction to his article.

I wish he would take time to do an expose on the successes out there.  What’s it like for those that return and have the tools to deal with their experiences.  Then we can work on replicating that.  Give our young people the tools they need to cope “before” they engage in activities that produce some of the results we’re seeing, not after-the-fact.  I see it as a clear failure of our current society. 

Remember, we have had a volunteer military for over 35 years.  Most Vietnam vets never asked for it, while every soldier who has joined since 1976 raised their right hand and volunteered for military service.  There has to be an element of personal responsibility.  I might feel a measure of skepticism if we had a conscripted military, but we don’t.  I blame the parents and the schools that prepared these kids.  Society lied to them, and they paid the price for it.

» on 04.18.12 @ 11:39 AM

I want to add one other aspect of PTSD that I read about recently, and lends itself to this current trend and may help deal with it in the future.

An extensive study conducted at UCLA and recently published suggests that there is a genetic disposition for PTSD symptons.  Abstract conclusion: 

“To our knowledge, this is the first published report showing that variants in TPH1 and TPH2 genes constitute risk factors for PTSD symptoms. Additionally, the TPH1 gene may be associated pleiotropically with PTSD and depressive symptoms. The association of the ‘s’ allele of 5HTTLPR polymorphism with depression adds to similar findings from case/case–control studies.” (

» on 04.19.12 @ 03:43 AM

I wonder if Ken ever gave thought to the notion that our Veterans Hospitals are run by the Federal Govt. Sort of like having the the Post Office in charge of your health. And some of you would like to turn over the whole kit and caboodle to them.

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