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Breaking the Culture of Silence: Mental Health in Aviation and Veterans' Struggles

I stand before you as Shannon Cruz, a highly decorated military veteran and pilot, sharing my experiences and insights on the critical issue of mental health in aviation.

Jennifer Homendy, the Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), recently emphasized the urgent need to break the "culture of silence" surrounding mental health in the aviation industry. Her words resonate deeply with me, not only as a pilot but also as someone who has witnessed the struggles of veterans like me in disclosing VA disabilities to the FAA. This blog aims to shed light on the interconnectedness of these issues and the stigma surrounding mental health in both aviation and the VA ratings system.

The NTSB's Warning

Jennifer Homendy's warning about the "culture of silence" affecting aviation safety strikes a chord with those of us who have dedicated our lives to flying and maintaining the skies. In her words, "No one … no one … should have to think twice about their job before seeking help." Yet, the reality is that many aviation professionals, including pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and others, often underreport their use of mental health care and medication.

The Impact of Keeping Quiet

Jennifer Homendy's message is a stark reminder that a culture of silence regarding mental health issues in aviation poses significant safety risks. The fear of facing stigma and potential consequences has created a reluctance among professionals to open up about their mental health or other issues, even when they are fully capable of performing their duties safely. In an industry where safety is paramount, it is essential to create an environment where individuals can access the necessary care without hesitation, ensuring both their physical and mental fitness for their critical roles.

Connecting the Dots with Veterans

Homendy's concerns about the aviation industry's silence around mental health resonate with the struggles of veterans in disclosing their VA disabilities to the FAA. The VA's labeling of various conditions as disabilities, even when they may not significantly impact one's ability to perform their job, has contributed to this challenge.

The Significance of VA Ratings

In the VA ratings system, conditions like a 10% disability for the knee or sinus issues are labeled as disabilities. However, these conditions are often more accurately described as minor ailments or conditions rather than disabilities. This labeling has created a situation where veterans feel compelled to file for any condition, regardless of its significance, to protect their rights and establish service-connected connections.

Fear of Disclosure

Just as aviation professionals fear disclosing mental health struggles, veterans fear revealing their VA disabilities to the FAA. The concern is that such disclosure may result in a loss of professional identity, livelihood, and expose them to stigma within the aviation community. This fear is compounded by the fact that many veterans, including those with PTSD from multiple decades of war, fit within the mental health category, which the NTSB's mental health summit recently addressed and is a significant concern for the FAA.

1. Parallels Between Mental Health Stigma in Aviation & Veterans

Aviation professionals, including pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and others, have long grappled with the stigma surrounding mental health struggles. This stigma can deter them from seeking help, fearing the potential consequences on their careers. Similarly, veterans, especially those with PTSD or other VA disabilities, face a similar dilemma. The fear of disclosing their conditions to the FAA often stems from the same concerns, including potential career setbacks and the fear of being stigmatized within the aviation community.

2. The Impact of PTSD on Veterans and Aviation Professionals

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent condition among veterans who have served in multiple wars over the decades. The NTSB's mental health summit rightly emphasized the importance of addressing mental health issues, including PTSD, within the aviation industry. Many veterans who transition to careers in aviation bring their military experiences with them, which can include trauma. However, it's crucial to highlight that there is no documented evidence to support the FAA's punitive approach towards veterans who do not disclose their mental health conditions. This approach fails to consider the nuances of mental health, including the stigma and potential consequences that veterans face, without offering any concrete evidence of a safety concern.

3. The FAA's Approach to VA Disability Disclosure

The FAA's approach to VA disability disclosure creates a dilemma for veterans. On one hand, they are encouraged to disclose their disabilities to ensure transparency and safety. On the other hand, the fear of losing their professional identity, livelihood, and experiencing stigma can deter them from doing so. This fear is particularly relevant when it comes to conditions like PTSD, which can be misunderstood and stigmatized.

4. The Need for a Supportive and Inclusive System

Both the aviation industry and the FAA need to foster a supportive and inclusive system that encourages transparency while addressing the legitimate concerns of veterans. It's essential to recognize that veterans may carry the emotional and psychological burdens of their service, including PTSD. The NTSB's recognition of the mental health challenges in aviation should serve as a reminder that these issues are not unique to veterans but are relevant to the aviation community as a whole.

A Call for Change

It is evident that both the aviation industry and the VA ratings system must evolve. We need a cultural shift that encourages individuals to seek mental health support without fear of repercussions and allows veterans to disclose VA disabilities without hesitation. Veterans should not feel pressured to label every condition as a disability to safeguard their rights.

Unfairness in the FAA's Actions

In my personal experience, I have encountered the harsh consequences of the FAA's approach to veterans with undisclosed VA disabilities. The FAA's decision to revoke my hard-earned pilot certificates in response to my failure to disclose VA disabilities was not only unjust but also detrimental to my career. This punitive approach, especially one that erases an airman's certificates, is excessive, considering that without a valid medical certificate, a pilot cannot legally fly.

A Call for Immediate Reversals

I strongly believe that the FAA should immediately reverse the pilot certificate revocations of individuals like me, who have been unfairly punished for their failure to disclose VA disabilities. As the NTSB Chair, Jennifer Homendy, rightly pointed out, no one should be punished to this extent for such a matter. Instead of punitive measures, the FAA should focus on a more equitable and supportive approach that considers the unique circumstances of each airman.


As a military veteran, pilot, and someone who has witnessed the struggles of veterans like me, I stand with Jennifer Homendy in her call to break the "culture of silence" surrounding mental health in aviation. It is time for both the aviation industry and the VA to prioritize the well-being of their professionals, recognizing that mental health is an essential component of safety and ensuring a brighter, more inclusive future for all. Together, we can create an environment where seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and where veterans can disclose their conditions with confidence and pride. We must also advocate for a fairer, more compassionate approach from the FAA, ensuring that unjust punitive measures are reversed promptly.

—- Shannon Cruz


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