More than 2.3 million soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq – 6,179 dead, 47,000 wounded. The Veterans Administration has treated more than 210,000 veterans of those wars for post-traumatic stress, disorder, but acknowledges a much larger epidemic, since the stigma of mental-health problems prevents many of them from seeking help. “It’s harder coming home than leaving – anyone will tell you that” says Col. Michael Gaal, who served in Iraq.
In Vietnam, 2.6 soldiers survived their wounds for every battlefield death; in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio is 16 to 1. But that means thousands are returning with catastrophic injuries, such as double and triple amputations and debilitating spinal cord damage, and they need special, long-term care. The use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents has caused a huge increase in traumatic brain injuries, widely considered the signature injury of these wars, with at least 218,000 cases.
They range from penetrating head wounds to concussions sustained through exposure to massive bomb blasts. There are combat wounds you can see, and others that are invisible until symptoms develop. Symptoms often overlap with those of PTSD, making it hard to determine whether soldiers are suffering a psychological problem, a brain injury, or both.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates that nearly one in three recent vets – or more than 700,000 of them – suffers from PTSD, depression, or brain injury. Blackouts, flashbacks, night terror, and sudden rages are common among veterans; suicide, alcoholism, and drug use have surged. PTSD has been cited as a factor in many acts of vets running amok, such as this month’s killing of a Mount Rainier national Park ranger by a 24-year old Iraq returnee. Since PTSD symptoms can emerge long after service ends, fallout from the disorder is likely to increase. When you look at the epidemic of PTSD, you see the future.
Depressed, divorced and haunted by the loss of several close friends in battle, Clay Hunt, a Marine sniper, killed himself last March.
Because of the high survival rates and the many cases of PTSD and brain injuries, it’s been estimated that the medical and disability costs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the next 40 years could reach $930 billion.
Many find that their old jobs have disappeared. Unemployment among recent vets is 13.1 percent, compared with the national level of 8.5 percent. One in three vets between the ages of 18 and 24 – many of whom had scant education or work experience when the deployed – is now jobless, twice the rate for non-vets of the same age range.
Four years ago the military was ordered to test every service member’s brain before and after deployment. But the $42 million effort, plagued by faulty tests and poor administration, has yielded little new insight.