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Returning Vets Face Psychological Problems

  • Jan Sluizer

As the U.S. military begins its fifth year in Iraq, about 1.7 million personnel have been deployed to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. As during America's last long war, in Vietnam, many of these troops are coming home plagued with a host of problems, physical, financial… and especially, psychological. As Jan Sluizer reports, veteran advocates say not much more help is available for returning vets today than there was for those who fought in Southeast Asia 40 years ago.

When Michael Blecker came home from Vietnam in 1970, little was understood about the psychological plight of returning soldiers. The nightmares and intrusive recollections now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder were not considered a separate combat-related disability. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association didn't create a diagnosis for PTSD as a mental disorder until 1980.

Blecker is now executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a non-profit organization founded in 1974 by war veterans to help other vets. He says the Veterans Administration didn't create any specific programs or centers to help Vietnam vets afflicted with PTSD until 1979, years after veterans had come home. "Nor was there any major effort to collect any data or study the effects of that war on veterans," Blecker adds. "They didn't get any help. That's probably why so many Vietnam veterans are in that misery index. They are impoverished. They're homeless. They're represented in those numbers far greater than they are in the general population because they didn't have any care, because their needs were neglected."

Blecker wants to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated with this newest generation of veterans. He says those returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan face psychological problems that Vietnam era soldiers didn't have to deal with. For example, many soldiers who have been deployed to the Middle East are National Guard or reservists who joined with few expectations that they'd see combat, and weren't trained for it. Forced to leave jobs, they often return to find their former positions no longer exist.

Blecker also notes that during the Vietnam War, a soldier only had to do one tour of duty. Soldiers today are sometimes sent back for three or four tours. "So they're subjected to these multiple threats to their livelihood. You know, it's sort of like you keep pressing your luck. And so each tour of duty, I think, adds to that new layer of stress."

When Sean McLain Brown went to veterans' hospitals after returning home from Iraq, he was offered group therapy, but couldn't attend because it was held during the day when he was at work. "I need individual psychotherapy and I need individual attention, you know, and they can't give that to me because they don't have the resources to provide it," he explains.

Unable to re-adjust to civilian life, Brown traveled around the United States, eventually finding himself in to Northern California. That's where anti-war author Maxine Hong Kingston has been holding a veterans writing group for 15 years. The daylong workshop is held on a farm four times a year, once each season. During the day, vets take solitary walks and then write down their thoughts. Some don't read their pieces at group gatherings… but Sean Brown does.

Disarmed, and certain you may be attacked at any moment, you should conceal yourself in a low-lying area. Use whatever cover is available for your awkward shape that shouts, Here I am! A sniper could hit your bright reflection, from 1000 yards out with a scope, as if you had nine lives, don't use them, be safe, if no immediate cover is available, dig a hole the size of a shallow grave. If you find that morbid, crawl on your belly in the dust until you reach the safety of uneven ground, any depression will do.

Brown says attending Maxine Hong Kingston's Veterans Writing Group saved his life, by helping him confront his pain and heal from the trauma of war. "I think what the workshop has taught me is something Maxine has actually said over and over and over again. And that is: To tell the truth and so make peace, and those are her words."

These days Brown is writing letters to legislators to urge them to provide funds for individual psychological help for returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think that we are going to see an explosion of domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse, because there is no resource to take care of these soldiers when they come home. It's just not there," he says.

Sean Brown is lucky he found a way to dispel his war demons, Michael Blecker says, because most veterans can't do it by themselves, the psychological trauma runs too deep. "What we need to do is recognize that the VA cannot do it all and the non-VA system has an obligation to care for those who are returning from war. The society as a whole is far more interested in what's happening to soldiers than ever before. But their attention span is going to end the minute this war ends. These changes need to happen now. We need to get the VA to be doing the job it should be doing now. We need the resources now or, else, we're never going to get it."

The Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a large-scale study of the effects of PTSD and other re-adjustment issues in the 1980s, and opened a National Center to coordinate further research. Vet Centers and medical clinics around the country provide care for those suffering from PTSD and other combat-related problems. Ira Katz, head of the VA's Office of Mental Health Services, says the message to returning veterans today is that evaluations and treatment in the VA system are available… and, that treatment works.

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