WASHINGTON — U.S. diplomats are returning from Iraq with the same debilitating, stress-related symptoms that have afflicted many U.S. troops, prompting the State Department to order a mental health survey of 1,400 employees who have completed assignments there.
Larry Brown, the State Department’s director of medical services, said that as early as this month the department will e-mail questionnaires to employees who have been posted in Iraq.
The surveys, to be completed anonymously, are intended to determine how many returning diplomats and civilian employees are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other problems as a result of exposure to a war zone, Brown said.
State Department employees in Iraq seldom leave the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone. Even there, though, rocket and mortar attacks are frequent and the sound of gunfire is constant. Suicide bombers have penetrated the zone on rare occasions, most recently on April 12.
The department was prodded to act by the American Foreign Service Association. It reported that some diplomats had difficulty adjusting after leaving.
Brown said the State Department is considering forming support groups “for alumni of high-stress or unaccompanied posts” — jobs in countries where the threat is so high or schools and medical facilities so poor that diplomats cannot bring family members.
The number of jobs classified by the department as unaccompanied posts has tripled since 2001 to about 700. There are about 200 such jobs in Iraq, said Henrietta Fore, undersecretary for management.
More than 1,400 State Department employees have served in Iraq since 2003. Three have been killed there.
Although U.S. diplomats have served in violent places before, they have “never been put into an active war zone in this way,” Brown said.
He said the department will use the survey results to decide whether it needs to change the way it prepares employees for assignments in Iraq and addresses any mental health problems they experience after returning.
Harry O’Hara, a 26-year State Department employee, said he suffers insomnia and has lost 15 pounds since coming back nine months ago. He recalls that while in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006, he had difficulty trying to sleep in a trailer near a landing pad for helicopters ferrying wounded troops into the Green Zone for treatment.
“What was never made clear to us was what it would be like to serve in a war zone,” O’Hara said. “I thought I was strong. I was totally unprepared.”
The U.S. military screens returning troops for PTSD. About 15% of them experience symptoms, said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general.
Diplomats might be suffering PTSD to the same extent as troops, says Joseph Boscarino, an expert on war-related mental problems at the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa.