April 12, 2008 – The sad death of Iraq war veteran Stephanie Breaux, her decomposed body found April 3 in a deserted house in a hard neighborhood, presents disturbing questions authorities will work to answer. But from family and friends a portrait emerges of a once vital woman who returned from combat a “broken little child,” whose psychological wounds from two overseas tours ultimately may have had as much to do with her death as her assailant.
In a war where so much has been borne by relatively few, this 27-year-old’s tragic death is a reminder to the rest of us of the emotional hazards of combat — even if we don’t fully grasp the devastating effect post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries have on many veterans and their families.
We rally around families who lose a son or daughter to a roadway bomb or sniper’s bullet, build a home for a soldier who returns as a quadriplegic. But it’s tougher, messier to deal with combat flashbacks, hair-trigger tempers, soul-draining depression and addictive self-medication that accompany the “invisible illness” of PTSD.
After waging world wars that gave us “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” even the military itself hasn’t fully come to terms with the psychological scarring on the men and women our nation sends into battle.
A study released in mid-2007 by the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health found that the military falls “significantly short” of providing a support system for psychological health, services, resources and leaders to assist those in need.
Said the report, “Against the backdrop of the Global War on Terror, the psychological health needs of America’s military service members, their families, and their survivors pose a daunting and growing challenge to the Department of Defense.”
Repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have put incredible mental pressures on service personnel and their families. From divorce to financial ruin to substance abuse, the toll mounts.
Among the task force’s findings:
n Mental health care stigma remains pervasive and is a significant barrier to care.
n Mental health professionals are not sufficiently accessible to service members and their families.
n There are significant gaps in the continuum of care for psychological health.
n The military system does not have enough resources, funding or personnel to adequately support the psychological health of service members and their families in peace and during conflict.
The military began taking steps both in Iraq and at home to better address these shortcomings. But change doesn’t come overnight, nor do public attitudes toward mental health disorders.
Significant gaps remain in the circumstances of how the body of Stephanie Breaux came to be found in a place known for its illegal drug trade. More certain is that this unfortunate woman won’t be listed as a casualty of war but as a Shreveport homicide statistic, though in fact she may be both.