Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Take Care Of Our Veterans
We went to war unprepared to deal with the influx of returning veterans and their needs.
Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops is a grassroots call to put the issue of supporting the successful reintegration of our returning troops front and center before the American public.
Meagher documents how returning GIs with urgent mental health needs are being basically ignored. She introduces us to soldiers like Corporal Ken Dennis and Marine Private First Class Mathew G. Milczark who did not fall on the battlefield, but fell from their own hands; committing suicide, unable to come to terms with their war experiences.
Red-headed Samuel Vaughan Wilson III, 36, says he looks like Howdy Doody, but nothing about him is funny. The black ID bracelet of a platoonmate killed in action firmly around his wrist, he is at one turn intimidating and dark, at another vulnerable, self-deprecating, and visibly wracked with survivor’s guilt. He’s outrun death, but doesn’t quite feel alive.
“My father wants me to get screening for Traumatic Brain Injury. He thinks something is wrong,” said Wilson, who served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, survived four IED incidents, numerous firefights, and was credited, in one incident, with saving eight lives and maintaining his composure under “the most extreme circumstances in a combat environment.” But in September 2006, he left the military after 11 years under a rare medical discharge for post-traumatic stress disorder. He now struggles to understand where his physical injuries leave off and the mental ones begin. His anger, restlessness, and sleepless nights are classic symptoms of both mild TBI and PTSD. “We’ve looked into it,” he said, of possible TBI screening, “but I’ve gotten nowhere in the VA system yet.”
“TBI is going to be the worst story in terms of returning veterans,” said Paul Sullivan, an advocate with Veterans for America. He estimates that anywhere from 160,000 to 320,000 servicemembers and veterans are suffering from some degree of TBI today, “most of which are unscreened, undiagnosed, and untreated.”
“It’s like slamming a laptop against the wall,” said Patrick Campbell, 29, a National Guardsman who served as a medic in Iraq from November 2004 to October 2005. While the computer may seem functional afterwards, small quirks like a broken backspace key or a jagged line down one side of the screen soon become obvious and render use slow, frustrating, and intolerable for the long term.
“The concussive event—the wind and the pressure changes—it’s more damaging than the force of getting hit,” said Campbell. He will tell you that in a single incident, an IED explosion causes an intense shockwave of pressure. When close enough, it can form tiny, destructive air bubbles in the brain and blow out precious wiring inside a soldier’s skull. Those not affected by the blast wave may be hurtled through the air, slammed around in a vehicle, or hit in the head with debris. Their Humvee might overturn. As described by some, any of this could throttle the brains like Jell-O. In Vietnam, one soldier was killed for every 2.5 wounded; in Iraq the survival rate is one killed for every 16 wounded. But the effects of TBI may take hours, days—even weeks—to surface.
“There are a lot of people out there who have never been ‘right’ after an IED,” said Campbell, recalling one case in which a veteran had to carry around a notebook to write down everything he did, said, or had to accomplish because his short-term memory was shot. “Now they are at home and wondering why they are different.”
These stories are hardly rare. Physically, soldiers like him look healthy, but they come home changed, confused about their circumstances and often too ashamed to seek help. If they are still on active duty, they worry that their brain injury or PTSD will be mistaken for a pre-existing personality disorder, which could result in a bad discharge. They are anxious about getting a good disability rating when they leave the military, as statistics show the Army is lowballing ratings for PTSD, TBI, and other injuries, meaning there is a good chance all they will get from Uncle Sam is a severance check. Once out, they face a long waiting list at the Veterans’ Administration and a lack of mental healthcare access in rural areas. Many contemplate or commit suicide, get divorced, leave their jobs, and even walk the streets, homeless.
“The idea of okay, cheer them up, wave the flag, bring them home, and forget about them … we’re going to be paying for this for the rest of their lives. It’s going to be a horrible bill that we’re going to pay,” said Wilson’s dad, now a high-school teacher in quiet Farmville, Virginia. “If we’ve got any moral virtue left, we’ve got to pay it,” he added. “We really didn’t anticipate, as a country, and as a nation, the tremendous stresses on our medical system. It’s a horrible thing.”
According to Meagher, “as of the end of 2006, one-in-four discharged Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (nearly 150,000) have filed disability claims, over 60,000 of which have been for mental health reasons.” We have failed to provide adequate funds for the Veterans Administration to deal with these disability claims. The Government Accountability Office in 2006 found that the Veterans Administration had based its budget requests not on the projected demand for health care services but on the amount the president was willing to request.
Leader of the American Legion, Thomas L. Bock said, “this budget model has turned our veterans into beggars, forced to beg for the medical care they earned and, by law, deserve.”
Thanks to lobbying efforts by groups like the IAVA, (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), the VA announced in April that it will begin screening all incoming veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for TBI. Now the pressure is on the Department of Defense, which only offers comprehensive TBI screening for the wounded coming into their hospitals, like Walter Reed.
With an estimated 5.5 million veterans being treated at the nation’s 1,400 hospitals and clinics each year—230,000 of them from Afghanistan and Iraq—and an estimated 470,000 more yet to move into a system that is experiencing a backlog of 400,000 disability claims and a six-month average wait for a medical appointment, it is hard not see fire on the mountain.
The image of the ever rough and ready, give 'em hell super human American warrior will likely never die. We must understand that our soldiers need the image in order to stay alive, but we also have to help them dismantle it when the shooting stops. Our ability to recognize the human suffering underneath is the only way to make our veterans whole again.
The above text is paraphrased from the following: http://www.movinganationtocare.com/documents/moving-a-nation-to-care_6.pdf