One in Six Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Might Have PTSD

It could be decades before we know the depth of veterans’ health problems.

SGT John Pacarello from Monticello, New York with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division rests along a ridgeline following a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan.
National Journal
Nov. 12, 2014, 8:10 a.m.

More than one in six sol­diers who served in the coun­try’s most re­cent wars may have post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order.

That’s the find­ing of the Na­tion­al Health Study for a New Gen­er­a­tion of U.S. Vet­er­ans, ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which sent out an up­date Wed­nes­day on the study.

It’s the first study that in­cludes post-9/11 vet­er­ans who don’t use the VA or who served dur­ing the wars but didn’t de­ploy to Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. In total, 60,000 vet­er­ans par­ti­cip­ated in the study.

“PTSD is a sig­ni­fic­ant pub­lic health prob­lem in Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom and Op­er­a­tion Ir­aqi Free­dom de­ployed and non-de­ployed vet­er­ans, and should not be con­sidered an out­come solely re­lated to de­ploy­ment,” the de­part­ment says on its web­site.

But vet­er­ans who were de­ployed in the coun­try’s latest wars are nearly 5 per­cent more likely to screen pos­it­ive for PTSD than those who were not de­ployed. About 15.7 per­cent of post-9/11 sol­diers who were de­ployed are at risk of de­vel­op­ing PTSD, com­pared with al­most 11 per­cent of those who were not, ac­cord­ing to the study.

A pos­it­ive screen­ing by a doc­tor doesn’t auto­mat­ic­ally mean that a vet­er­an has PTSD, but the VA says it “does in­dic­ate that a pa­tient may have PTSD or trauma-re­lated prob­lems.”

If vet­er­ans po­ten­tially have PTSD, they are also re­quired to be ques­tioned on if they are hav­ing sui­cid­al thoughts, and will likely be re­ferred to re­ceive ad­di­tion­al men­tal health care. Symp­toms of PTSD can in­clude sui­cid­al thoughts as well as night­mares, flash­backs, changes in per­son­al­ity, and sleep­ing dis­orders.

Post-9/11 vet­er­ans who use VA health care are sig­ni­fic­antly more likely to be flagged for PTSD than those who don’t, and this study in­cluded sol­diers from both cat­egor­ies. Among de­ployed troops, more than 24 per­cent of those en­rolled in the VA got a pos­it­ive screen­ing for PTSD, com­pared with 9.8 per­cent of non-VA users.

The VA doesn’t elab­or­ate on why there is a gap between the two groups. PTSD—and men­tal health prob­lems more broadly—are con­sidered to be un­der­re­por­ted. VA of­fi­cials and ad­voc­ates ac­know­ledge that some vet­er­ans at­tach a neg­at­ive stigma to ask­ing for help.

Des­pite the study, it could be dec­ades be­fore the VA knows the full ex­tent of post-9/11 vet­er­ans’ health prob­lems.

VA Sec­ret­ary Bob Mc­Don­ald, speak­ing at the Na­tion­al Press Club last week, said that “forty years is when the peak de­mand oc­curs for a vet­er­an serving in a war. Forty years from the end of the war.”

Ad­voc­ates want to ex­tend a vet­er­an’s com­bat eli­gib­il­ity for free VA health care from five to 15 years after they leave the mil­it­ary. In a les­son learned from the Vi­et­nam War, they say that some vet­er­ans have a delayed re­ac­tion to trauma after they leave the ser­vice. An es­tim­ated 30 per­cent of Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans suf­fer from PTSD.

Tom Ber­ger, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Vi­et­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica na­tion­al health coun­cil, said earli­er this year that for Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans, the ex­tra time “would have made a world of dif­fer­ence.”

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