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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Returning Vets, Families Must Have Access to Critical PTSD Treatment

Caution and advice in a San Antonio Express-News opinion piece submitted by a former Army Medical Corps major and psychiatric physician at Brooke Army Medical Center:

Over the past few years I have talked with nearly 2,000 Vietnam-era and Iraqi veterans about their experiences in combat and the problems they face at home. Surveys confirm what I have seen and diagnosed. One in six veterans returns with combat- related stress problems, and yet less than one-third report their symptoms. Fewer still receive necessary treatment, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Many do not report their symptoms because they fear it may impact their employment or chance for promotion. They fear loss of high-level security clearances or the stigma of being thought of as crazy, imbalanced, weak or incompetent. And, sadly, they are probably right.

As a result, many veterans suffer in silence as they experience difficulties at home and work and in day-to-day activities. Many are confused about their conflicting emotions and turn to alcohol and/or drugs. They self-medicate, and self-medication can lead to even greater disaster. Family relationships suffer, friends are lost, and self-esteem plummets, sometimes leading to suicide. Indeed, according to a recently released Department of Defense report, suicide rates are 35 percent higher in veterans of Iraq than in the general population.

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PTSD symptoms do not diminish over time. Even 40 years later, many Vietnam veterans suffer from worsened symptoms, which have become habitualized and much more difficult to treat.

Most received no diagnosis or treatment until recently. A more timely diagnosis and treatment of returning Iraqi vets should go a long way toward preventing many of the problems faced by Vietnam veterans.

What should we be doing?

We need more research to identify treatment techniques that work and are accepted by veterans, such as Operation BATTLEMIND, developed at Walter Reed, which converts a "combat mind-set" to more appropriate civilian thoughts and behaviors.

Most important, successful treatment involves offering accessible care, with adequate and properly trained staff, to veterans and their families. ...If the experience of Vietnam veterans taught us anything, it is that the brave men and women we send to fight our wars deserve and require our support and encouragement. ...

They and their families — and, ultimately, society — are adversely impacted if veterans miss out on critical PTSD treatment. Don't we owe them that, and more, for the sacrifices they make on behalf of our country?

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