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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Philadelphia Inquirer Offers Thoughtful Combat PTSD Piece

A solid piece runs in the Philadelphia Inquirer today which takes the reader through the combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder experiences of a handful of returning Iraq veterans, and discusses ways local groups in PA and NJ are joining with the Veterans Administration (VA) to give them the care they need and deserve once they're home.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

The piece opens with the story of Army Sgt. First Class Mark Rizzo. Fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City, four of his fellow National Guard battle buddies were lost in two separate attacks; the events of those days still haunt him.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Rizzo's field-artillery unit, pressed into service as provisional military police, came home last year with 23 Purple Hearts, 17 Bronze Stars - and a lot more "processing" to do. Nearly 40 percent of the 180 members sought counseling, New Jersey officials said.

Nationally, at least 35 percent of Iraq veterans received mental-health care during their first year home, according to a Pentagon survey of more than 222,000 returning Army soldiers and Marines since 2003.

Across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, military, state and federal veterans organizations are aggressively encouraging Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to get help with posttraumatic stress disorder. New Jersey this year has more than doubled the amount to treat the disorder, allocating $800,000, which supplements federal aid. An additional $200,000 is likely to be sought next year as the needs grow, veterans officials said. Calls to the state's 24-hour hotline rose dramatically after 1,700 soldiers returned in November and December. Five hundred calls came in during the first six months of operation last year; more than 400 were logged in just the first three months of this year.

Pennsylvania, though it has no separate fund for posttraumatic stress treatment, is closely tracking returning troops and making them aware of the vast safety net of federal and state veterans programs.

A list of some of the efforts made by the military to educate troops on mental health issues is covered, including teaching soldiers to spot the signs of trauma and depression.

Many requests for counseling come 30 to 90 days after troops return, said Bill Devereaux, director of veterans programs for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Soldiers report problems with "nightmares, anxiety, anger, antisocial behavior, adjusting to family, overindulging with drugs," Devereaux said. "They miss the camaraderie of their friends, the rush of adrenaline, the call to arms. They also remember things that happened over there - dead friends, dead children," he added. An improvised explosive device "goes off, wounds two GIs, and blows up seven Iraqis. Now they feel guilty for being safe. The hardest thing they do now is get through traffic on Route 73."

At the same time, memories of combat trauma can be triggered when least expected. "A smell will set you off, a certain song, shadows on a dark night," said Devereaux, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded twice. "You don't get rid of it. You just learn to live with it. "Like physical wounds, you treat it. You continue counseling, group meetings. Talking to peers is the best cathartic medicine."

Another combat experience is shared, one of an attack on a former Iraqi base which left a Marine dead. Mark Rizzo, the soldier whose combat experience opens the piece, relates how he over-reacted to an abandoned car on the side of the street one day as he and his wife were driving along.

"I made my wife get in the passing lane," said Rizzo, a member of the Third Battalion of the 112th Field Artillery with units based in Cherry Hill, Vineland, Morristown, Toms River and Lawrenceville. "I said, 'We need to clear the area.' She kind of understood."

Today's veterans "are better educated about psychological reactions and what to do about it" than troops in past wars, said Steven Silver, director of the Coatesville center's posttraumatic stress disorder program. "Some information has been provided to them during the demobilization process," said Silver, 61, a Vietnam veteran. "They're told, 'If you have problems, get help immediately.' They've heard that message and are acting on it. There wasn't any debriefing or demobilization process at all after Vietnam," he said. The troops "turned in their equipment and were discharged to their homes 24 hours after they left the combat zone."

Rather than set aside funding for posttraumatic stress treatment, Pennsylvania depends on the VA network, said Cecil Hengeveld, deputy adjutant general for veterans affairs in Pennsylvania. "Every state does it slightly different," he said.

New Jersey provides funding so veterans don't have to be on waiting lists for treatment, Devereaux said. They can seek treatment from one of 20 private counselors across the state who are paid a prorated amount for their services.

Brig. Gen. Maria Falca-Dodson, deputy adjutant general of New Jersey's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said additional state money was needed because of the influx of returning troops with exposure to combat. "It's better to get care up front and not let it become chronic," she said. Rizzo believes troops suffer posttraumatic stress because, he said, "they have feelings for everybody - Americans and Iraqis. "Is it logical for one person to kill another person?" he asked. "It doesn't make sense, and soldiers struggle with that."

Please read the entire piece; then contact [scroll down] the Philadelphia Inquirer to let them know you appreciate their coverage.

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