Flawed bill would cloud history's lessons
A key committee of the General Assembly voted last week to open the records of Civil War veterans treated in the state's mental hospitals for that era's version of post traumatic stress disorder, then known as "soldier's heart" or "nostalgia." Unfortunately, the Government Administration and Elections Committee also saw to it that history will be denied knowing anything more about these heroes - and they were as heroic as any soldier suffering a battlefield wound for his country - by voting to remove their names from the released records.
The committee also voted to withhold the addresses of these men, along with their Social Security numbers, even though they were war casualties 150 years ago and most of them were long gone when Social Security was enacted 70 years after the Civil War ended. But you can't be too careful when protecting privacy.
Just ask the ranking Republican committee member, Sen. Michael McLachlan, who introduced the amendment on behalf of descendants who might be embarrassed not only by their heroic ancestor's disease but the need of the family to confine him more than a century ago in a state institution for the mentally ill instead of a private hospital.
This rather archaic view of mental illness is - incredibly - shared by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer, who has testified that the information is "sensitive" and she is certain "family members of those who were in state hospitals would not want that information released."
We're not sure where the commissioner or Sen. McLachlan found fourth and fifth generation descendants of these Civil War heroes but we'd prefer to hear their own testimony about whether the experience of their heroic ancestors might be of benefit to those suffering the same illness in 21st century warfare. None have come forward, as far as we can tell.
The bill, making medical records in the state archives accessible 50 years after the individual's death, was introduced after Central Connecticut history professor Matthew Warshauer was denied access to the veterans' records while researching a book on Connecticut in the Civil War.
Unless the amendment is rejected by the full House and Senate, the bill will prevent historians from cross checking these records. As Sen. Anthony Musto, the committee chairman, explained it, redacting the names will prevent researchers from evaluating how that era's equivalent of PTSD impacted the lives of these Civil War soldiers by comparing their medical histories with other surviving records.
At a hearing earlier this year, Professor Warshauer said if names are blocked, "we have no ability to look at a pension record in the National Archives, we have no ability to go to their local town and look at their historical society records to find letters and files related to it."
This may seem a small matter in the blizzard of bills that bury the legislature every session, but history has a lot to teach us. How the nation treated veterans with what we now know as PTSD is a significant lesson to learn and could help inform current policies. There is no legitimate argument being offered as to why the state should bind the hands of historians in this manner. The harm appears manufactured.
Sen. Musto was foiled in his effort to get the complete records made public by the absence of three members of his Democratic majority, Sen. Edward Meyer and Reps. Michael D'Agostino and Matthew Lesser. The amendment was passed 6-5 with the votes of the five Republican members and a Democratr, Rep. Theresa Conroy. These may prove to have been costly absences unless the committee vote can be undone later in the session.
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