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Thursday, June 22, 2006

OEF/OIF Cases of PTSD Doubled Over Past Year

The Bangor Daily News (via reports on the crush of new post-traumatic stress disorder cases turning up at the Veterans Administration over the past year, far surpassing predictions. Rep. Michael Michaud [D-Maine] is alarmed, saying, "If the trend keeps up, by [Sept. 30] more than 30,000 servicemembers and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will seek mental health services at the VA due to an initial diagnosis of PTSD. Frankly, I don't think the VA's budget planned for this number of new veterans with mental health concerns."

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Thousands of veterans are returning from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in need of mental health services, and concern is growing about the ability of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to meet the demand.

Over the past year, the number of veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder has more than doubled, increasing from a cumulative 9,688 by May 2005 to 25,317 by last month, according to a recent VA report. "VA therapists and counselors are dedicated, but VA's leadership is spreading them too thin. How can this increase in demand, coupled with the decrease in the frequency of care, not affect access and the quality of care VA gives veterans?"

Michaud's alarm is shared by veterans organizations, according to Ron Brodeur, a spokesman for the Maine office of Disabled American Veterans. "We're very concerned," he said Tuesday. Not only are many returning veterans and service members seeking treatment for PTSD and other mental health conditions after their tours, but at the same time a presidential commission is reviewing all VA health benefits to see where efficiencies may be implemented, he said.

"We're very concerned they're going to be second-guessing veterans' problems, including PTSD," Brodeur said. "It's taken us 30 years to get it out of the cellar and onto the table," he said, referring to the long battle to get the debilitating disorder recognized as a combat-related diagnosis.

Brodeur, a U.S. Air Force veteran who saw combat in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, said veterans from all U.S. wars since World War II have been diagnosed with - and many continue to be treated for - PTSD, which is characterized by overwhelming flashbacks, panic attacks and paranoia. Untreated, the condition can last indefinitely and worsen over time.

While recent reports confirm that so far about 10 percent of service members returning from the Middle East have sought treatment for PTSD, Brodeur said, he would not be surprised to see the percentage rise to 30 percent or 35 percent. "We should be thinking about it now," he said. "We're going to see it, and we should be ready for it."

At the Togus VA Medical Center, director Jack Sims said Tuesday that although there is "widespread concern" across the country that demand for mental health services may outstrip availability, Maine veterans from all conflicts can expect speedy access to the care they need. Sims said 3,242 Maine veterans have an active diagnosis of PTSD. Maine recently had a "slight" increase in cases, he said, but even if there is a significant increase, existing services will be able to meet the demand.

As the news comes in fast and furious on this issue this week, we're reminded that our advocacy for our veterans is all that much more important with every such report.

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