PTSD: Wounds of the Soul

PTSD: Wounds of the Soul
By: Mary-Ann Maloney

With as many as 40 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans expected to return home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the Veteran's Administration is scrambling to be able to meet the needs.  At John J. Pershing Veterans Hospital in Poplar Bluff, they've increased their mental health staff by 200 percent over the last 18 months and they're still hiring. 

Soldiers and Marines can suffer from PTSD after witnessing a traumatic event.  Multiple deployments, in a war with no fixed front or rear, fighting an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform in almost an unbearable environment are some of the reasons more and more veterans are suffering from PTSD. 

From September of 2005 to June of 2006, reported cases of PTSD involving Iraq veterans was up 87 percent.  This is a trend that many medical experts expect to continue.  Often the symptoms of PTSD don't suffer until months after a soldier or Marine returns home. 

Mary Lee Jennings, a clinical psychologist at John J. Pershing, admits they're backlogged right now.  She says that for whatever reasons, this war is triggering PTSD in some World War II and Vietnam veterans.  These men are accessing the VA health system for the first time to help deal with anger, depression and other symptoms of PTSD.

Logan Merrill, a Farmington resident, was diagnosed with PTSD in April, a year after returning home from his third tour in Iraq.  Logan has spent the last five years either in war, getting ready for war or returning from war.  That, along with witnessing friends getting killed or hurt, is why Logan believes he has PTSD. 

He admits that soldiers and Marines sometimes consider suicide as a means of ending the mental anguish.  In fact, Heather Hudlow, the suicide prevention coordinator at John J. Pershing, points out that every day within the VA system, four to five people kill themselves.  Not all of these people served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the situation is so alarming, that Hudlow's position is a new one at the Poplar Bluff hospital.  Veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to commit suicide.  Often times they turn to alcohol or prescription drugs to escape the pain.   

Colonel Kathy Platoni, a psychologist and 28 year Army veteran, spent a year in Iraq training combat stress teams.  The teams are composed of medical professionals who get to soldiers on the battlefield hopefully within 72 hours of them suffering a traumatic event.  Colonel Platoni says they are "force multipliers."  It's their job to keep men and women in the field, fighting.  Rarely do they want to send someone home for treatment, although sometimes they have to if a person can no longer function effectively because they've been so traumatized. 
Many soldiers and Marines under report PTSD, for various reasons.  Logan Merrill says he's embarrassed.  There is a stigma attached to mental health issues and some believe that if they're labeled with PTSD, they'll hurt their military careers.  But for most of the men and women, it's the guilt associated with potentially being sent home.  They don't want to leave their buddies.  Colonel Platoni says sometimes sending a soldier home can be the worst thing to do as they wrestle with leaving their friends in the combat zone.
When they come home, depression associated with PTSD is often worsened by the fact that things have changed at home, in society and in the workplace.  Richard Frank is a counselor with the Poplar Bluff VA.  He points out that while in war, these men and women had tremendous responsibility--literally the power of life and death in their hands.  When they come home they're sort of "demoted" Frank says, to jobs that don't carry as much responsibility or power.  The transition back to civilian life can take months, even years.
There is a growing concern in the United States that the government--the VA--isn't doing enough to get ready for the epidemic of mentally damaged veterans who will be coming home in the next couple of years.  There are complaints that PTSD is under diagnosed and that the VA isn't spending enough money on mental health services.  In a bill making it's way through Congress right now, the VA is budgeted 29 billion dollars for next year.  That's up four billion from this year.  Of that 29 billion, nearly three billion is earmarked for traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.  These are becoming the most common injuries of these wars, especially the one in Iraq.  Locally, John J. Pershing spent a little more than one million dollars last year on mental health services.  This year, they've already spent more than two million.
Logan Merrill is willing to serve another tour wherever his country needs him.  He's back in Farmington now, training to become an officer in the Missouri National Guard.  Colonel Platoni travels the nation talking with medical professionals about PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. 
As we look to end our involvement in Iraq and get our troops home, the VA is readying itself for what some are calling the "perfect storm."  How they deal with it and how the country deals with returning veterans will be a defining moment.