Troops return to painful wait for needed help

February 04, 2007|By Andrew Weaver and Ray McGovern

The California Nurses Association reported that in the first quarter of 2006, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs "treated 20,638 Iraq veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, and they have a backlog of 400,000 cases." A returning soldier has to wait an average of 165 days for a VA decision on initial disability benefits, and an appeal can take up to three years.

This is unacceptable and reprehensible.

The saying "War is hell" doesn't begin to describe how horrible it has been for tens of thousands in our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. War inevitably involves witnessing and sometimes engaging in gruesome acts of violence. It is a shocking confrontation with death and devastation. It is normal for human beings to react to war's psychic trauma with profound fear, anger, grief, repulsion, helplessness and horror - or with emotional numbness and disbelief.

Trauma is the Greek word for "wound." Just as a physical wound from combat can cause suffering in the body, psychological trauma can cause acute suffering of mind and spirit.

It is not surprising to find that an assessment of more than 220,000 military personnel returning from Iraq published in the April Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly one in five has significant mental health problems. Repeated tours of duty increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder by 50 percent.

At the same time, we are hearing disturbing news reports that these traumatized soldiers are not receiving the mental heath care they urgently require. Last month, National Public Radio journalist Daniel Zwerdling did an extensive story on the military's treatment of personnel returning from Iraq who suffer from emotional problems, including PTSD.

Veterans coming home stated that their superiors have harassed and punished them for seeking help for psychological problems triggered by their service in Iraq. Several of the soldiers' supervisors acknowledged the callous treatment.

A recent national study by the Government Accountability Office found that most of the troops who show signs of PTSD were not referred to mental health professionals, despite Pentagon claims, in NPR's report, "that providing support to soldiers with emotional problems is a top priority" and "that resources are being made available to returning veterans."

If the same disastrous pattern unfolds that affected Vietnam-era veterans, and these PTSD sufferers do not obtain appropriate and timely assistance, tens of thousands will become unnecessarily and tragically addicted to drugs or alcohol, and many may commit suicide. Besides the 58,000 lost in combat, we lost tens of thousands of Vietnam-era military personnel to suicide and drugs.

The American people must actively advocate and demand appropriate treatment for veterans who have been psychologically wounded by war.

Andrew J. Weaver is a United Methodist minister, research psychologist and author in New York City. His e-mail is aweaver747@aol.com. Ray McGovern was an Army officer and a CIA analyst and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. His e-mail is rrmcgovern@aol.com.

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