Iraq veterans need support for PTSD
For many U.S. soldiers and Marines, leaving Iraq means no longer having to dodge Iraqi snipers and shrapnel. But coming home may involve fighting the lingering psychological effects of war that can be just as debilitating.
The mental and emotional consequences of an inner war simmering within many veterans will stalk them with haunting images of combat and self-destructive manifestations for years; for some, it will last a lifetime. It is a reality warriors of the past have known all too well, but after it afflicted a majority of those who served in Vietnam, members of the mental-health community finally took a serious look at the phenomenon known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an agency sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, concludes: “The estimated lifetime prevalence of PTSD among American Vietnam theater veterans is 30.9 percent for men and 26.9 percent for women. An additional 22.5 percent of men and 21.2 percent of women have had partial PTSD at some point in their lives. Thus, more than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans – about 1,700,000 Vietnam veterans in all – have experienced clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.”
These “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms” include: feelings of intense anger, fear, frequent nightmares and flashbacks, hyper-alertness, sleep deprivation, feelings and actions that result in isolation from family, friends and society in general, difficulty maintaining primary relationships, self-destructive thoughts and acts including suicide, and excessive use of alcohol and drugs as a way to self-medicate.
On July 1, 2004, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that concludes nearly one of five combat soldiers is leaving Iraq with mental-health problems such as PTSD. As far as what triggers an onset is concerned, the study acknowledges there is “a strong reported relation between combat experiences such as being shot at, handling dead bodies, knowing someone who was killed, or killing enemy combatants, and the prevalence of PTSD.”
Other early indicators are beginning to surface regarding the psychological effects of combat, including media reports that the military is “alarmed” by the number of suicides among soldiers serving in Iraq. It also has been reported that U.S. veterans who have made it home are beginning to show up in large numbers at homeless shelters around the country, and advocates fear they are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless vets not seen since the Vietnam era.
One cannot help fearing the percentages of Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD will eclipse the numbers of those represented by Vietnam veterans. The onset for symptoms of PTSD can often be suppressed for years; these early numbers may be only an initial first wave. Another concern is that tours of duty in Vietnam were generally 13 months. However, most Iraq war soldiers, including undertrained National Guard soldiers and reservists, are being deployed for one year, sent home for eight months and then redeployed back into the breach of an Iraq war for another full year. The New England Journal of Medicine study also reports important barriers to receiving mental-health services includes a reality in which the “stigma” of seeking help can torpedo military careers.
All those factors may prove fertile ground for the growth of PTSD that may reach near epidemic proportions within this newest generation of war veterans.
With a subsequent decline in VA services and benefits, as indicated in President Bush’s budget proposal, one wonders if the VA is prepared for the potential onslaught of veterans with PTSD. One government therapist recently confided that part of the problem is that there is no federal money to pay disability claims for veterans emotionally crippled with PTSD — therefore, a reluctance to make such a diagnosis, let alone treat it.
Veterans and those who love them should be vigilant in identifying symptoms of PTSD that can be as real as a bullet and, if left untreated, just as deadly. Many Vietnam veterans learned the importance of talking about their experiences and readjustment problems with other veterans who understood what they were feeling. In such safe environments, veterans begin to heal as they are set at ease knowing they are not alone. Such a meeting is held every other week in Lakewood; it is not affiliated with the military, the VA or any other organization.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.orgDavid Lynn, who lives in Wauna, is an ex-Marine sergeant and combat Vietnam veteran.