Homeward bound

January 20, 2008

War messes with soldiers' minds. On Nov. 25, 1906, The Sun reported that a Warrenton, Va., man pleaded with a judge in Washington for leniency for his son, claiming that he was a victim of his three years' service in the Army fighting insurgents in the Philippines. On his return to the U.S., Harry Pattie had been sent to an "asylum" for three months; a week after his release, he was in court, charged with theft from a saloon on Pennsylvania Avenue. His father said the Philippine climate had affected his son's brain - and it's not hard to suppose that it was the climate of fear and brutality surrounding the guerrilla war there, rather than the climate of heat and humidity, that he was talking about. The judge released Mr. Pattie to his father's custody.

Difficult, intractable wars against insurgents are especially trying, as the war in the Philippines was in the early years of the 20th century, and the war in Iraq has been in the early years of the 21st. Fortunately, the military today is more attuned to mental health issues - but the response is still wanting.

More than a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for mental health treatment, despite the lingering stigma that still surrounds such a request. At least 1,500 recent veterans have been identified as homeless by the Veterans Administration. The New York Times reported last week that it had found 121 cases of murder in which the suspect is an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran.

The problem of post-traumatic stress disorder is particularly acute among soldiers of the National Guard who have served in a war zone. The Journal of the American Medical Association says that 42 percent show symptoms of the disorder. The abrupt demobilization of National Guard units on their return to the U.S. may contribute to this high percentage; soldiers are cut off from those who have shared their experience, and expected to resume life as working civilians. In a matter of weeks, or sometimes months, PTSD can begin to show itself.

Last week, David Wood of The Sun reported on the disgracefully anemic resources that are available to returning members of the National Guard; 1,000 Marylanders are due home this spring. On Wednesday, Gov. Martin O'Malley asked for $800,000 for a new reintegration program and $3.5 million for a gap program to cover veterans in rural parts of the state where access to VA facilities is sparse. These are worthwhile efforts - but the costs of the war in Iraq are national. The states shouldn't have to pick up the federal government's burden.

More comprehensive mental health care must be available to all of the more than 1 million veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, regular military as well as National Guard. Washington should take on the expense of transition pay and reintegration for the National Guard, and extend medical insurance beyond the current two years. Anything less is unworthy of a modern national government.

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