The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Veterans with mental illness:
The hidden toll of war

Mar 13, 2006

More than one in three U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq has received some kind of mental health care within a year after coming back. This is the result of surveys taken by about 300,000 veterans deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas from May 2003 to April 2004.

Not surprisingly, the highest rate of mental problems is seen among troops coming back from Iraq, where patrolling the streets makes U.S. soldiers direct targets. In Iraq even bases are not safe – they are regularly targeted by mortar attacks. And if not a target themselves, seeing others getting killed or wounded traumatizes soldiers for months and years to come – not to mention being the shooter who kills a child or another civilian who happens to be in the way.

I had real bad flashbacks. I couldn’t control them,” said Jesus Bocanegra, a 23-year-old Iraq veteran from Texas. “I saw the murder of children, women. It was just horrible for anyone to experience.” Such flashbacks, anxiety and panic attacks, nightmares, inability to sleep, inability to relate to other people, depression, aggressive or suicidal thoughts are common symptoms among combat veterans. Bocanegra has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Officially, Iraq veterans are being diagnosed with PTSD at a rate of 12% a year.

PTSD is a name coined after the Viet Nam war. Before Viet Nam, it was called “combat fatigue” or “shell shock” and usually ignored. Today, also, most veterans who have such problems never receive any treatment, or even recognition, for their suffering.

There are some statistics that give a hint about the toll PTSD takes on veterans and their families. According to a recent study done by the Army, for example, documented cases of aggression among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan rose from 11% before deployment to 22% afterwards. Alcohol misuse increased from 13% to 21%. Divorces among soldiers in 2004 were 28% more than in 2003 and 53% more than in 2000 – while the total number of soldiers stayed about the same during that time period.

Of course, soldiers, their families and friends don’t need these statistics to know what war does to people. They experience it first hand. They know that most of those who survive a war will carry the scars of it, physical as well as mental, for the rest of their lives. Many of them will not be able to adjust to society, hold down a job or stable relationships and will end up in the street. Many will take their own lives. (Most estimates agree that the number of Viet Nam veterans who committed suicide within several years after the war is greater than 58,000, the number of U.S. troops killed in that war).

Nor do veterans and their families need medical experts to come up with new names for this after every war, whether it’s called combat fatigue, shell shock or PTSD. They know what it is and what it’s called.

It’s called war. If war doesn’t kill or paralyze you on the battlefield, it does that afterwards. Perhaps more slowly, but just as surely.