While soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not dying at the rate they did in the Vietnam War, they are amassing nightmares that could haunt them, their families and society for years to come.
In Vietnam, it was usually one tour and done, because the draft produced more troops. Now, it’s three or four and possibly more tours as an all-volunteer force bears the burden. The good news is that the nation’s attitude toward the troops is largely positive and the military has grown more sensitive to the strain of service. The bad news is that the accumulated stress may overwhelm those efforts. Plus, the pressure to return troops to service could short-circuit needed care.
President Barack Obama is considering several options for Afghanistan, including raising troop levels by 30,000. To do that, he’ll have to draw on the military’s stressed-out ranks. Mental health advocates fear that this will lead to quick diagnoses and “cures” for troops, because they’re in such great demand.
They have reason to be concerned. A Rand Corp. study last year determined that nearly 1 in 5 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression. Preliminary reports show that those veterans are becoming homeless at a faster clip than Vietnam veterans. Veterans are twice as likely to be homeless as average Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The suicide rate is 11 percent higher than it was for Vietnam veterans.
Still to come is the increasing fallout from reservists and National Guard members who can’t hold down their previous jobs and troops who are rejected for disability payments. Those who clear the disability bureaucracy need endurance, because they have to satisfy the VA and Social Security Administration, even though their definitions of disability are largely the same.
This toll has mounted despite the Pentagon’s doubling of spending on brain-injury treatments and mental health services. Long waits for psychiatric evaluation and mental health care are common.
Clearly, more help is needed. One solution is the Benefit Rating Acceleration for Veteran Entitlements Act, which would allow the Social Security Administration to accept a VA determination on disability. That would cut the lag time in half and encourage more veterans to apply for benefits they deserve.
Beyond that, the VA needs more administrative staffing to handle the flood of benefits requests and more mental health care professionals to help damaged troops.
As for the president and other national leaders calling for an expansion of war, they need to factor in costs that could last a lifetime, because for many troops the battles do not end when they return to American soil.