The mental strain on soldiers is a relatively new field of study. The medical community was generally aware of “shell shock,” but it wasn’t until the 1980s that comprehensive research began on the lingering effects of war. Today post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a common diagnosis, but researchers are still discovering new aspects and mental health professionals are trying to tailor treatment accordingly.
Because the situation is so fluid, the federal government needs to keep an open mind on what resources will be needed to help soldiers returning from Iraq. Psychologists have discovered that the Iraq War is exacting a different mental toll than did the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam, combat troops generally alternated between intense battles and periods of rest out of harm’s way. In Iraq, soldiers are always on guard because they face suicide attacks and other guerrilla tactics no matter where they are. Psychologists are finding that such constant exposure is a leading indicator that a solider suffers from PTSD.
The official position of the U.S. Veteran’s Administration is that it has enough resources to handle the mental health problems of returning troops, but veterans’ advocates aren’t so sure. They fear the need for help is underestimated for a number of reasons:
“The stigma attached to mental health. The military is very much a masculine, “suck-it-up” culture, which causes soldiers to shy away from mental health treatment for fear of looking weak.
“The eagerness to see family. Soldiers who haven’t seen loved ones for a long time are going to be reluctant to report combat stress symptoms because that can delay their return home.
“The delayed onset of problems. Some stressed soldiers seem fine initially, only to have issues emerge years later. This was common with Vietnam War veterans.
The Iraq War has provided psychologists an opportunity to study extensively the mental toll on troops, and they’ve taken advantage of that. Troops are analyzed before deployment and after serving. The information compiled could lead to more effective preventive practices and after-service treatment.
That’s good news, but federal budget writers can undermine these efforts by being too stingy. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has been at the forefront of securing sufficient funding to handle the health needs of returning troops. She tried to attach additional money to the current war-funding package being debated in Congress, but her effort failed on a party-line vote.
The mental health needs of returning soldiers should not be a partisan issue. Many soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and are already struggling. They can’t sleep. They can’t concentrate. They are distrustful of their surroundings.
These soldiers have sacrificed a great deal. They should be encouraged to get help. When they do, this nation has a duty to make sure that help is readily available.
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