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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Des Moines Register Delivers Strong PTSD Coverage Today

A big pat on the back to the locals, yet again, for doing an outstanding job of covering the combat PTSD story. This weekend, it's The Des Moines Register's turn. They deliver a massive amount of reporting on the experiences of Iowa's returning combat troops coping with PTSD in not one, but 6 articles (2 are web exclusives). Start with PTSD: Soldiers in Distress, and then navigate to the other articles from the page's left-hand column (labeled 'related stories').

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

From the Des Moines Register:

It's a jarring image: A U.S. flag flies upside-down outside Terri Jones's home. It's a distress signal she took straight from the federal flag code - and it's her way of calling Iowans' attention to what she believes is an unfolding crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. One of its victims, she said, was her son, Jason Cooper, 23, who took off his dog tags, fastened a noose, and stepped off a chair.

"Our soldiers are being failed," said Jones, who lives outside Russell. "I'm extremely proud of our soldiers. They responded to the call to duty. They're willing to do anything for that American flag, but what that American flag stands for is not willing to do anything back for them."

Aid for returning veterans has become a hot-button issue across the country, with Democratic politicians and veterans' advocates crying for better detection and treatment of combat-related mental health problems. But military and Veterans Affairs officials in Washington, D.C., and in Iowa say they have to practically beg troops to take advantage of the unprecedented help that's already offered.

"We're out there in their faces. We insist. We give them examples. We're all there for them," said Victor Tate, a VA outreach specialist in Iowa. "At no time in the history of America has more attention been paid to veterans."

Having the deepest respect for the work being done by the individuals at the VA across the country, I still bristle a bit at this statement. The VA or the DOD do not insist; true insistence would include required debriefing programs following combat.

Much like boot camp is required to teach a soldier to fight, many military families who've lost loved ones to suicide following deployment (including the Omvigs introduced later in the article) say the military should also be required to teach the soldier to live in peace again once they return home.

No one knows exactly how many Iowa service members suffer from combat-related mental health issues. But when the family of 22-year-old Grundy Center resident Joshua Omvig, another Iraq veteran who committed suicide in Iowa, created a Web site ( with a clearinghouse of PTSD information, it had more than 14,430 hits in four months. And the e-mails and message posts from service members about failing relationships, job troubles, assaults and thoughts of suicide led Ellen and Randy Omvig to believe problems with untreated PTSD run deeper than Iowans might have guessed.

Studies show that between 12 percent and 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That could mean that as many as 2,000 Iowans - with more than 9,000 Iraq or Afghanistan veterans living here, and at least 1,249 more currently serving in the Middle East - are suffering now or could develop symptoms.

Families like Ellen and Randy Omvig and Terri Jones are asking: If the psychological trauma of combat has ruined soldiers' lives following every war, why haven't military and Veterans Affairs officials learned how to treat it yet? "We can treat it," said Paula Schnurr, deputy executive director of the VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which opened 17 years ago in response to a Congressional mandate to address military-related PTSD. "We don't have all the answers, but we can help a number of people substantially. The earlier the treatment, the better."

Yet the stigma against reaching out is deep and sure.
Military officials admit more needs to be done to help service members' overcome their reluctance to get treatment. When returning reservists report after 90 days for their first post-combat drill, they have to fill out an anonymous risk assessment survey. There's a space where they can reveal their names and request help, but so far, no one has done that, said Travis Bartholomew, director of the U.S. Army Reserve's family programs in Iowa.

Both of Iowa's post-combat suicide victims were soldiers in the Army Reserve. "It's on us to keep up the marketing," Bartholomew said. "We have to get to the families. Families, please, please, if you see something going on, call."

Therapists are available for Iowa's veterans - and some are underused, VA officials said. Group therapy exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is offered weekly at the Des Moines VA Medical Center. Only one person has shown up."Their opinion is they're doing fine. They don't need any help," said Patrick Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Reserve realized it wasn't doing enough for unmarried soldiers, so it now holds weekend retreats to talk about everything from emotions to job skills, Bartholomew said. And it sends staff members called "soldier and family life consultants" to mingle with the soldiers as they do their duties and to ask how they're doing.

Meanwhile, one of the Iowa Army National Guard's tools for dealing with combat stress is a one-day workshop called Enduring Families. It used to be optional any time during soldiers' first three months back; it's now required at 90 days.

Iowa is one of only 15 states where the National Guard offers an after-deployment program - and the Pentagon liked it enough to ask organizers to share it with other states, said Cathy Luther, director of the National Guard's Iowa family programs. The workshop offers peer-to-peer discussions, briefings on health care, and sessions on anger management, parenting skills, couples therapy and unmarried soldier issues. "You can kind of see them coming in saying, 'Oooh, we have to go to this?' and by the end of the day you practically have to kick them out," Luther said. About 250 mental health professionals volunteer their time; the 2,481 soldiers who have attended in the last two years were paid

The Iowa National Guard is so serious about soldiers' well-being that the staff even does interventions, said Becky Coady, a family programs assistant. They've done at least 50 in two years, gathering with families to convince the soldier to get help "before everybody is hurt, emotionally and physically," she said.

There are no repercussions for getting help with PTSD, said Lt. Col. Todd Jacobus, commander of the 224th Engineer Battalion. "To say, 'It'll affect my career,' that's a cop out," he said. "There are people hungry to help them. "Our soldiers' failure to pursue assistance is something they've made a decision to do on their own. It's the wrong decision."

As I end by applauding the Des Moines Register for their excellent reporting on this issue, the idea forwarded by Lt. Col. Jacobus of blaming the soldier or the military family for not pursuing assistance is unsettling.

We can do better than this, can't we, as a nation?

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