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October 12, 2006

Iraq Brings Wounds That Deepen With Time

by Jim Lobe

A new report in this month's issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry finds that while a high percentage of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many do not show symptoms right away.

"We can only speculate about why the rates rise with time," said lead researcher Sgt. Thomas A. Grieger, a professor of psychiatry who works at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington.

Grieger's team followed more than 600 injured soldiers after they returned from Iraq. They found that after one month, 4.2 percent had probable PTSD and 4.4 percent had depression; at four months, 12.2 percent had PTSD and 8.9 percent suffered from depression; at seven months, 12 percent had PTSD and 9.3 percent had depression.

"It could be the severity of the injury. It could be that the severity of the physical problems they face hurt them when they're returned to an environment where they're supposed to perform either in their profession or to be an active and loving father or spouse," Grieger added. "The trauma of that could contribute to the development of PTSD."

Regardless, the finding that PTSD can develop over time means families and friends of returning soldiers must be on the lookout to make sure no psychiatric problems develop.

"I'd be concerned if they weren't sleeping well," Grieger told IPS. "I'd be concerned if they'd given up activities that they previously enjoyed. Sometimes they call out in their sleep. Often they have difficult driving or flying or being in other kinds of confined spaces."

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.

Also of concern, Grieger said, would be if soldiers are unwilling to talk about their war experiences or show discomfort at reminders of war like civilian aircraft or Hummers.

Researchers found that severely injured soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder at about the same rate as those returning troops who were not injured in battle.

"The increase from 4 to 12 percent from one to four months is exactly what we've been seeing among non-wounded soldiers," Dr. Charles Hoge of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research told Forbes magazine.

That's hardly news to John Oliviera, a former Navy lieutenant who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the military in 2004. Since returning to his native Massachusetts, he has been in and out of the Veterans Administration's mental facility.

"I think they finally figured out the right cocktail of meds to give me," he told IPS. "It's been really rough. I've been good lately, but a few months ago I had to be hospitalized after bashing my head over and over again into concrete."

Oliviera, who worked as a U.S. Navy spokesman in addition to participating in bombing runs, is now employed at the airport commission and as a fill-in talk show host on an AM radio station in New Bedford.

He's also started a veterans' assistance organization designed to help those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as raising awareness about PTSD.

"There's a lot of shame in saying you need help," he said. "You know in the soldier's mind you're supposed to be tough and self-sufficient. Also, a lot of people don't know that the VA [Veterans Administration] will cover all your health expenses after you come back from the war."

Oliviera told IPS that Vietnam veterans have been especially helpful assisting him and other younger vets suffering from PTSD.

According to an analysis published by the journal Science in August, 18.7 percent of Vietnam veterans had experienced PTSD and nearly one out of every 10 veterans of the war in Southeast Asia still suffered from chronic and disabling symptoms more than a decade after the war had ended. In 2004, the government continued to compensate 217,893 vets for PTSD, more than the total number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), issued a statement when the article was published in Science earlier this year.

"Given the nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, VVA has no reason to believe that the rate of PTSD for veterans of [Iraq and Afghanistan] will be any less than that of Vietnam veterans," he said.

"The bottom line must be to make sure that the new generation of returning veterans gets the assistance and clinical interventions they need, so that they don't develop chronic PTSD," Rowan concluded.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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