The official blog of American Veteran Magazine, the national quarterly publication of AMVETS.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tragic Baghdad Shooting Rekindles Combat Stress Debate

Yesterday's tragic shooting of five mental health counselors at Camp Liberty in Iraq has reopened the national dialogue on combat stress. Immediately following the news out of Baghdad that a U.S. service member took the lives of five of his fellow troops, speculation began as to the causes of such a heinous act. This morning, we learned that the soldier was a patient at the clinic struggling to cope with combat stress.

On CNN and the BBC yesterday, I reiterated the fact that combat stress and traumatic stress are germane to the combat experience. Where a veteran's reaction to combat stress develops into "post-traumatic stress disorder" is when a veteran becomes overwhelmed by the stressors, or cannot put experiences into the proper context, leading to patterns of self-destructive behavior.

When I returned from Iraq, I faced my own hurdles in coping with combat stress running the gamut from self-medication, to panic attacks, nightmares, anger and avoidance issues. However, I was able to quickly enroll with the VA health care system and sought proper counseling.

Don't get me wrong. This was by no means a "cure-all" to coping with combat stress. Anger issues still crop up, as do bouts with insomnia and avoidance. However, by working with the VA, I have been able to adapt properly.

In the military, we are taught to be tough, to be strong. These are necessary character traits when faced with the dangerous situations and difficult decisions that come in the heat of battle. When you're deployed to the combat zone, your body is at a chemically heightened state of alertness. Recent studies have even demonstrated that thought patterns may literally change to respond to now commonplace life-threatening situations.

When troops return home, this heightened state of alertness does not simply "go away." In fact, it's the natural reaction to such a profound experience. In this state, returning veterans may find that what had been commonplace in civilian life can now trigger thoughts and reactions reminiscent of combat--whether it's adverse reactions to crowded situations, unexpected loud noises, traffic, or even something as benign as traditional Muslim garb.

For troops who seek proper counseling and discuss their experiences, reintegration after combat often goes smoothly. However, troops who are unwilling to admit that they have gone through a life-altering experience, or who choose to self medicate as a coping mechanism will often degrade into patterns of self-destructive behavior, as I did in the beginning. In fact, the VA has acknowledged that PTSD is the leading cause of substance abuse and homelessness among veterans.

If you are a veteran who has had difficulty readjusting, the responsible course of action is not to "suck it up and drive on." The responsible course of action is to seek counseling from the VA.

Over the years, AMVETS has fought to dispel the negative stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health issues. Many troops believe they are tough enough to face these challenges on their own and that seeking treatment will somehow have a negative effect on their military or private sector careers. Many times, this is not the case.

Today, the Department of Defense has made significant strides in identifying potential combat stress issues and implemented new policies designed to encourage troops to seek treatment, rather than punishing those who admit they have trouble coping with combat-related issues. The department has also acknowledged that long, repeated deployments only exacerbate the situation, and Defense Secretary Gates has taken steps to alleviate the strain on service members and their families.

Recently, AMVETS testified before Congress on PTSD and pointed out the importance of proper implementation of the VA's recommendations outlined in the Uniformed Mental Health Services Handbook.

Over the last five years, VA has looked into discrepancies across the board in their treatment of combat stress, and a recent report suggests that progress has been slow coming. AMVETS hopes that the implementation of a new uniformed service and health record for DoD and VA will help alleviate some of the enrollment shortfalls for VA, but AMVETS also reiterates the need for additional counselors and increased access to services for rural and remote veterans.

We've heard all sorts of horror stories from veterans around the country in regards to enrollment with the VA, difficulty in scheduling appointments, and frustration over paperwork inconsistencies and bureaucracy. Many of these complaints are quite valid and have driven the work of AMVETS National Headquarters to demand systemic change.

Fortunately, we have made significant progress and leaders in Washington seem to recognize the gravity of this issue. Plus, AMVETS offers a cadre of national and state service officers who stand ready to assist veterans at VA Regional Offices across the country. An up-to-date list of service officers and contact information can be found by Clicking Here.

Some people think that PTSD is a new issue and have attempted to discredit those who seek treatment through the VA. However, I want to point this out: I've noted several times that simply discussing your experiences and placing them into the proper context is often the best step in alleviating combat stress issues.

When the WWII generation returned from war, not only were they the majority of the adult male population in the United States, but they were organized. AMVETS developed out of WWII with posts all across the country where veterans could gather socially and discuss their time overseas.

Organizations such as AMVETS provided an acceptable outlet for veterans to place wartime experiences into the proper context and our country became considerably stronger for it.

Today, AMVETS and our 1,200 posts nationwide have the unique opportunity to offer this kind of support once more to our newest generation of war heroes. So to find a list of AMVETS posts near you, Click Here.

Sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic ear who can tell you that everything is just fine.


If you are a veteran in immediate need of counseling, call the VA's 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Press "1" for veterans.

If you have any questions or comments for AMVETS on the issue of combat stress, please post below. We read every comment and we do our best to respond to every question in a timely fashion.

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