Friday, April 18, 2008

One in Three Returning Vets Suffer from Brain Injuries, Mental Health Problems

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By Joshua Holland

Last month, hundreds of veterans who had served in the "War on Terror" gathered at the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington. They had come from across the country to give testimony about what they’d experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere).

They were young -- young enough to make this 38 year-old observer feel over the hill. Some fit the stereotype of the rough-and-ready American soldier -- the invincible John Rambos of American lore -- but most were average, some skinny. Many appeared small without the bulky body armor with which we’re accustomed to seeing them in news reports.

They are our nation’s kids. They might have been young men and women on any American campus -- there was the usual abundance of tattoos and piercings -- but there was a difference.

Many were broken, some grievously injured in battle, some missing limbs. All of the vets with whom I spoke had obvious psychic scars; several exhibited unconscious facial ticks as they spoke. As I talked to one young woman -- she couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 -- I thought to myself, ’oh, that’s what those Vietnam vets mean when they talk about a thousand-yard stare.’

When we consider about the costs of these occupations, as tax-payers, we shouldn’t forget that we’re getting off cheaply. The Iraqi people have paid the dearest price for Bush’s adventure in the Middle East, and, after them, it’s been the 1.7 million Americans who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan at one time or another over the past five years who have had to bear the greatest burden.

A new study brings that burden -- or part of it -- into sharp relief. From the Boston Globe:

The latest and most comprehensive study of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has concluded that nearly 1 in every 5 veterans is suffering from depression or stress disorders and that many are not getting adequate care.

The study shows that mental disorders are more prevalent and lasting than previously known, surfacing belatedly and lingering after troops have been discharged into civilian and family life.

An estimated 300,000 veterans among the nearly 1.7 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are battling depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. More than half of those people, according to the study conducted by the Rand Corp., are slipping through the cracks in the bureaucratic system, going without necessary treatment.

"We call it ’360-365’ combat," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "What that means is veterans are completely surrounded by combat for one year. Nearly all of our soldiers are under fire, or being subjected mortar rounds, or roadside bombs, or witnessing the deaths of civilians or fellow soldiers."

In addition to PTSD rates, the Rand study found that 19.5 percent of people who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffered a concussion or another traumatic brain injury during their combat tour, a number similar to Army estimates.

Taken together, the study shows that 31 percent of those who have served in combat have suffered brain injuries, stress disorders, or both.

Failure to treat disorders adequately can cost the government billions of dollars, said Lisa H. Jaycox, another of the study’s authors.

Some service members avoid a diagnosis of a mental health problem, fearing negative consequences, according to the study. These troops worry about damage to their military careers and relationships with co-workers. "When we asked folks what was limiting them from getting the help that they need, among the top barriers that were reported were really negative career repercussions," said Terri Tanielian, one of the study’s authors.

The people who claim they support our troops are the ones who want to keep sending them into the meat grinder for nothing, indefinitely. They support the troops in the abstract, as political props to muster support for a war that makes them feel powerful by proxy and gives meaning to their meaningless existence as good little American consumers.

It’s a betrayal on an epic scale.

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