Troops often struggle on return

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken thousands of lives, but many more thousands of military men and women are coming home wounded in body and spirit who need more care than the nation is providing, says the head of a veterans group.

“That is the cost of war and we need more than Veterans Day to remind people of it,” Michael Blecker, executive director of the veterans group Swords to Plowshares, said Tuesday.

Blecker served in the 101st Airborne Infantry Division from 1968 to 1970 during the Vietnam War, when drafted soldiers served single tours of duty.

Compared with that, he said, servicemen and -women doing as many as four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan is similar to being nearly hit by a bus twice a month for years. Veterans are returning with the scars of that stress to find a recession at home, with high unemployment and a lack of re-entry resources.

A 2008 Veterans Affairs study estimated that 18 percent of veterans recently finished with service are unemployed and of those, 25 percent earn less than $21,840 annually.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate among active-duty troops today is much higher than during previous conflicts despite a heightened awareness of the psychological terror of warfare.

The strain burst into prominence Thursday when an Army psychiatrist being deployed to Afghanistan was accused of an attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 and wounded dozens. Five of the dead were fellow therapists, the Army reported. It was at least the fourth time service members attacked fellow troops since 2003.

“We can make war,” Blecker said. “But we have to take care of the veterans who fight it.”

Instead, one soldier described to the New York Times a system that appeared to be overwhelmed and resistant to diagnosing problems that would require multiple visits for medical care.

The soldier, a linguist who suffered from panic attacks and nightmares, waited eight months for a visit with a psychiatrist, who prescribed a sleep aid. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The backlog of disability claims is approaching 1 million, according to figures compiled by Swords to Plowshares, with waits of six months not uncommon, especially among reservists and the National Guard.

They are half as likely to file a disability claim as active-duty veterans but more than twice as likely to have their claims denied.

That leaves hundreds of thousands stranded without the resources they need to function in society and within their families.

“The system has been starved of meaningful programs for decades. That means people who need help don’t get it,” Blecker said. “The system is tapped out.”

The Pentagon has begun to recognize the crisis. New veteran centers are opening across the United States, and in 2008 Congress passed an education bill for veterans serving since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Pentagon also began assigning more therapists to combat units and launching studies of mental health and suicide among troops.

The Army, for example, has 408 psychiatrists for its force of 545,000. That is a ratio of 1 to 1,335.

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