June 4, 2008 – Many of our combat troops have served multiple and extended tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where terrorists and enemy insurgents are relentlessly bent on killing and maiming them.
Naturally, because they are human, the experience changes many of these troops. Memories of gunfire, bloodshed and destruction are not easily repressed upon return to civilian life. They can haunt a veteran, causing him to have nightmares, to be easily angered, to distrust even his family and friends, to reject relationships, to have trouble holding a job, and to start drinking heavily or taking illegal drugs.
There is a name for this: PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It has been associated with combat veterans for decades. Just last week the Associated Press reported that 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with PTSD since 2003.
The country has a moral obligation to veterans diagnosed with this condition, and fulfilling that obligation is the job of the federal Veterans Affairs Department, regardless of cost.
This is why the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs is holding a hearing this morning to inquire whether this obligation is being fully met.
Testifying before the committee will be Norma J. Perez, the former PTSD coordinator at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple, Texas. On March 20 she sent this e-mail to mental health professionals whom she supervised: “Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out.” As an alternative, she suggested that veterans be tagged with “adjustment disorder,” a less intense condition that disqualifies veterans from receiving PTSD disability benefits.
She also wrote that “we really don’t have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD.”
Just months ago, internal e-mails written by the VA’s top mental health official were also leaked, showing that suicides among veterans were being downplayed in public statements.
The Senate VA committee should determine whether these e-mails reflect the opinions of individual staffers — or Bush administration policy.