Tuesday, June 19, 2007

45,000 and counting

That's the number of war veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and have sought treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And, if anything, that number is a substantial underestimate of returning veterans with PTSD, because many will not report their symptoms or seek treatment for fear of stigmatization.

On Sunday and Monday, the Washington Post published a lengthy and comprehensive report on the quality of treatment these veterans are getting -- or, in many cases, not getting. You can read part one of the series here and part two here.

This is a single-issue blog. Our issue is the death penalty. We don't talk about any other issue besides the death penalty -- hence the name of the blog. Duh.

But this issue is about the death penalty.

We have already executed a number of Vietnam veterans as well as veterans of the first Gulf War. (Indeed, two of the three inmates executed by the federal government have been veterans -- one of Vietnam, the other of the first Gulf War.)

Veterans returning with untreated PTSD, in many cases, commit suicide. In many cases, they pose a threat to themselves or others. Left untreated, some will lash out.

And some, invariably, will end up on America's death rows. And the sad thing is, it is all so damn preventable.

The Washington Post notes:

By this spring, the number of vets from Afghanistan and Iraq who had sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions, some 45,000 in all.

They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as
Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in
Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half; and Army
Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.

They represent the first wave in what experts say is a coming deluge.

As many as one-quarter of all soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq are
psychologically wounded, according to a recent American Psychological Association report. Twenty percent of the soldiers in Iraq screened positive for anxiety, depression and acute stress, an Army study found.

It gets worse:

For the past 2 1/2 years, the counseling center at the Marine Corps Air
Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., was a difficult place for Marines seeking help for post-traumatic stress. Navy Cmdr. Louis Valbracht, head of mental health at the center's outpatient hospital, often refused to accept counselors' views that some Marines who were drinking heavily or using drugs had PTSD, according to three counselors and another staff member who worked with him.

"Valbracht didn't believe in it. He'd say there's no such thing as PTSD,"
said David Roman, who was a substance abuse counselor at Twentynine Palms until he quit six months ago.

"We were all appalled," said Mary Jo Thornton, another counselor who left last year. A third counselor estimated that perhaps half of the 3,000 Marines he has counseled in the past five years showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress. "They would change the diagnosis right in front of you, put a line through it," said the counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works there.

"I want to see my Marines being taken care of," said Roman, who is now a substance-abuse counselor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.

In an interview, Valbracht denied he ever told counselors that PTSD does not exist. But he did say "it is overused" as a diagnosis these days, just as "everyone on the East Coast now has a bipolar disorder." He
said this "devalues the severity of someone who actually has PTSD," adding: "Nowadays it's like you have a hangnail. Someone comes in and says 'I have PTSD,' " and counselors want to give them that diagnosis without specific symptoms.

Valbracht, an aerospace medicine specialist, reviewed and
signed off on cases at the counseling center. He said some counselors diagnosed Marines with PTSD before determining whether the
symptoms persisted for 30 days, the military recommendation. Valbracht often talked to the counselors about his father, a Marine on Iwo Jima who overcame the stress of that battle and wrote an
article called "They Even Laughed on Iwo." Counselors found it outdated and offensive. Valbracht said it showed the resilience of the mind.

We have two choices in front of us. We can provide the counseling and help
these veterans need and deserve. Or we can simply start building more prisons.
Because unless something is done, we're going to need them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to write that it may benefit active duty veteran family’s / friends of veterans to read a recently released book titled, “Still the Monkey: What Happens to Warriors After War?” "Author Alivia C. Tagliaferri became inspired to write Still the Monkey: What Happens to Warriors After War after she visited the Walter Reed Medical Center in the summer of 2003, and saw first hand the casualties of the War on Terror. Her later interview with a former Marine and Vietnam Veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder helped cement her determination to express the devastating toll of war. Still the Monkey is a historical fiction novel about a Vietnam veteran plagued with pain and sickness, and his fateful meeting with an Iraq veteran who lost both his legs. For ten days inside the walls of Walter Reed's Monologue House, the two of them begin a painful yet ultimately cathartic progression toward healing and learning to live again, one day at a time. A poignant and powerful novel, written out of the deepest respect and admiration for the men and women who put their lives on the line for the sake of their nation.” - Midwest Book Review. At http://www.ironcuttermedia.com/ you can learn more about this book, which is reality-based work of historical fiction that depicts the problems caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among returning veterans. I hope this post helps educate people out there that need assistance. Take care and God bless.