“Rates of mental health problems among new veterans are high and rising,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) said in its January 2008 issue paper, “Mental Health Injuries: The Invisible Wounds of War.” With 1.5 million service personnel having served in Iraq or Afghanistan and one in three vets expected to suffer serious psychological problems including depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), IAVA says about 500,000 men and women are coming home with combat-related psychological injuries.
In addition, up to 300,000 Iraq vets have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which may not have outward signs and may be hard to distinguish from psychological injury.
The toll on troops and their families is severe. The Army recently released figures showing that about five soldiers attempt suicide each day, up from one per day before the Iraq war started. According to IAVA, one fifth of married soldiers in Iraq say they are planning a divorce, and at least 40,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been treated for substance abuse.
Army figures show soldiers serving multiple deployments are 50 percent more likely to suffer mental health problems.
With military and veterans’ care systems increasingly overwhelmed, hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers and veterans are now waiting months or even years to get medical help and disability compensation.
How to reverse this tide? “Well, the first thing we need to do is to stop the war, and stop creating more of this problem,” Michael McPhearson, executive director of the St. Louis-based Veterans for Peace and veteran of the first Gulf War, said in a telephone interview.
Though care for returning soldiers and veterans has never been adequate, McPhearson said, the Bush administration failed to anticipate both the length of the war and the types of injuries it would bring.
“Then, because they didn’t do any planning,” he said, “the war is costing a lot more than they expected. So they are looking for ways to not spend as much money on other aspects such as health care for veterans.” He cited the lack of mental health providers as an acute problem.
McPhearson urged people around the country “to get involved locally with the issue,” so they can help work on specific problems in their areas. “People at the vets center here are very concerned about what’s happening with veterans, but they don’t have enough resources to deal with the problems,” he said, adding that veterans themselves often aren’t given complete information on help that’s available to them.
“Soldiers don’t know the rules of the Veterans Administration, so if it gets too hard and there’s no one to talk them through it and explain the benefits, they just say ‘forget it,’” said Eli PaintedCrow, who retired as a Sergeant First Class after 22 years in the Army, including service in Iraq.
PaintedCrow, a member of the Yaqui Nation and lives in California’s Central Valley, said the large number of soldiers who return home to rural areas face long travel times to reach veterans’ services and programs in the cities.
Ten percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are women, among them some 16,000 single mothers. “So here you are in a small town trying to get to the vet center, and you have kids,” PaintedCrow said. “Who’s helping them with their children, and who’s helping them with their PTSD or other problems while they’re trying to deal with their children? Communities need to build something around that,” she said. “We can’t wait for the VA.”
Soldiers of color, both men and women, also face constant problems with racism, she said, citing her own experience with a white female commander who told Black and Brown soldiers under her command that if they trained their white replacements satisfactorily, they could serve as their assistants.
Both McPhearson and PaintedCrow emphasized the special problems faced by women soldiers who experience sexual harassment only to find that their charges are disregarded or covered over.
PaintedCrow said the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), which she helped to co-found, emphasizes “opening a door” for women soldiers to connect and “heal the wound that’s inside.” Many of its leaders are “women of color, lesbian women, women who feel a disconnect everywhere else,” she said. “This is not based on rank or where you served, it is based on who you are as a woman, what is important to you and how we can validate and support that.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has set out a far-reaching legislative program to address many of the problems faced by returning vets, including guaranteeing “thorough and confidential” mental health and TBI screening for all troops before and after a combat tour, fully funding VA health care, overhauling the military and veterans disability system and enacting a “modernized World War II-style GI bill” of education benefits for returning soldiers.