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Texas Troops Among Those Who May Suffer Psychological Disorders After Iraq

Aug 17, 2007
General David Patraeus, the U.S.'s top military commander in Iraq, stated he was "very concerned" about the trend of ethical behavior displayed by troops in the region. Perhaps this admittance was influenced by reports that as many as one-third of troops employed torture techniques, and that the majority of military surveyed would not turn in a colleague for doing so.

This, amid heated controversy over an increasingly unpopular war, military returning home with psychological impairments, stories of U.S. soldiers torturing detainees at Abu Graib, and President Bush's plan to add more to the roughly 20,000 additional troops he sent to Iraq earlier this year.

Six thousand National Guard troops from Texas (not including those on active duty) have been deployed since 2004, originally from all areas of the state -- from the larger cities of Dallas, Houston, and Austin, to the smaller towns on the plains.

The uncontrollable elements of guerrilla warfare, like roadside bombings and mortar attacks, impose great stress. It's no wonder that so many soldiers are influenced by, and are returning home with, psychological problems and neuropsychological impairments.

While it may be easy to blame troops for unscrupulous actions, it should also be recognized that they are dealing with conditions of "lack of control" and "limited progress," elements that most psychologists admit will drive many to uncharacteristic behavior, particularly when faced with life or death situations.
According to even the military's own psychologists, Colonel Carl Castro and Major Dennis McGurk, troops may be under more stress than those who served in either World War II or Vietnam. Many are working twelve to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end, with no "safe zone" to return to unless it's on a large, heavily guarded base -- to which many of the troops do not have immediate access.

At no other time in U.S. history have so many served under such conditions. The impact of their psychological impairments could be significant for the health care and health insurance industries in years to come.

The longer one is deployed, and the faster he or she has to return to active duty, the higher the risk of mental health issues, reports also indicated. These problems are highest among those who experienced close combat, at 30%. And though health care professionals recommend eighteen to thirty-six months at home before returning to the war-zone, troops get an average of twelve months, with rumors that tours will extend to fifteen months, up from the previous twelve.

Jennifer J. Vasterling, Ph.D., of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, evaluated 961 troops before deployment to, and within 73 days after returning home from, Iraq. After comparing to a control group of similarly-profiled military who did not deploy, her team concluded that these returning veterans, overall, experienced mild verbal learning, sustained attention, and visual-spatial memory impairments, as well as "negative effects on measures of confusion and tension." Findings were relevant even after accounting for head injuries, stress, and depression. Such impairments, even if mild, reflect neural dysfunction and may have marked effects on day-to-day life and future occupations, including military positions. These impairments have a "negative (effect on) performance in high-pressure contexts, such as subsequent war-zone participation."

Reports vary on the precise number of troops returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan with psychological issues. Some statistics state that only 13% suffer from mental health problems, while others say 17% are afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) alone. That's already 2% higher than Vietnam veterans, and as many as 80% of those with PTSD from the Vietnam War also suffer from alcohol dependence. This doesn't bode well for current military, though researchers in the mental health community are hoping to deal with these issues before substance abuse problems occur.

That's tough when only one in five who screen positive for PTSD by the military are actually referred for follow-up evaluations. It is believed many more slip through screening altogether. Unfortunately for many veterans, such disorders are often only recognized after destructive behavior (like Driving Under the Influence charges), demotions, and relationship problems manifest. Analysts believe that part of the problem is due to poor psychological evaluations before deployment, and waiting too long after war-zone exposure before conducting psychological screenings.

Thankfully, there is some hope to improve conditions. Michael J. O'Rourke, the Assistant Director of Healthcare Policy for Veterans of Foreign Wars, says that shortening the length of tours may help, even if their frequency increases. Making a concerted effort to supply "safe zones," as well as reducing the number of hours per week, may also relieve some of the stress.

No one in his or her right mind would claim war is the healthiest thing to do psychologically. Whatever one's opinion on the current state of political events, however, most would agree that safeguarding the permanent health and welfare of these individuals should be at the forefront of government strategy, ensuring that not only as many troops as possible return home, but also that they return home with all their faculties.

Watching out for your mental health is paramount to overall physical well-being. How you take care of yourself will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet, as well.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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