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Veterans struggle with war trauma

A study finds a high rate of depression and stress disorders, and many are not getting proper treatment.

April 18, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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 these people, according to the study conducted by the Rand Corp., are slipping through the cracks in the bureaucratic system, going without necessary treatment.

The Rand study underscores one of the lessons of modern counterinsurgency conflicts: Such wars may kill fewer troops than traditional fighting but can leave deeper psychological scars.

Screening techniques for stress disorders are vastly improved from previous wars, making comparisons with Vietnam, Korea or World War II difficult. But a chief difference is that in Iraq and Afghanistan all service members, not just combat infantry, are exposed to roadside bombs and civilian deaths. That distinction subjects a much wider swath of military personnel to the stresses of war.

"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 to mortar rounds or roadside bombs, or witnessing the deaths of civilians or fellow soldiers."

Military officials praised the Rand study, saying that its findings were consistent with their own studies, and said it would reinforce efforts to try to improve mental health care. Veterans Affairs officials, while questioning the study's methodology, said their department had intensified efforts to find discharged service members suffering from mental disorders.

The Rand Study was undertaken for the California Community Foundation, which also has funded other programs for returning veterans. Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, said the study would help draw the nation's attention.

"They are making this a national debate," Schoomaker said.

The Army previously has said that an estimated 1 in 6 service members suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a slightly lower rate than the Rand study found. In addition to current PTSD rates, the Rand study found that 19.5% of people who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffered a concussion or other traumatic brain injury during their combat tour, a number similar to Army estimates.

Taken together, the study shows that 31% of those who have served in combat have suffered from brain injury, stress disorder, or both.

Combat-related mental ailments and stress can lead to suicide, homelessness and physical health problems. But more mundane disorders can have long-term social consequences.

"These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend the consequences of combat trauma across generations," the study said.

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

"We make the case that investing in treatment early would prevent some of the negative consequences from unfolding and save money," Jaycox said.

Some service members avoid a diagnosis of a mental health problem, fearing negative consequences, the study said. 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, another of the study's authors.

The study proposes two key changes. It recommends ways to allow service members to get mental health care "off the record," to avoid any possible stigma. And since some soldiers and Marines fear that seeking treatment will prevent their redeployment, the study recommends that fitness-for-duty reports not rely on decisions to seek mental health care.

Col. Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Department's PTSD center, expressed concern about the Rand finding that only half of service members with stress disorders seek help. Changing military culture to encourage troops to get help is difficult, she said at a news conference.

Service members who seek treatment face a dearth of healthcare providers with expertise in war-related mental disorders, the study found. The shortage leads to long waits that discourage some people from obtaining help.

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