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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Combat Clips: A Selection of OEF/OIF Veteran Statistics, December 2009

A look at some of this month's news on returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. First up, from Gregg Zoroya, USA Today:

About one in four soldiers admit abusing prescription drugs, most of them pain relievers, in a one-year period, according to a Pentagon health survey released Wednesday.

The study, which surveyed more than 28,500 U.S. troops last year, showed that about 20% of Marines had also abused prescription drugs, mostly painkillers, in that same period. ... The survey showed that pain relievers were the most abused drug in the military, used illicitly at a rate triple that of marijuana or amphetamines, the next most widely abused drugs.

About 15% of soldiers said they had abused prescription drugs in the 30 days before they were questioned for the survey. About 10% of Marines said the same thing. Prescription drug abuse is "an issue for American society as well, and we're looking at it from every possible angle," McGuire said.

Painkiller abuse among troops has soared since 2005, the last time a similar study was conducted. The 2005 survey showed that 4% of soldiers had abused painkillers in the previous 30 days, compared with 13% in 2008. Abuse within the previous year was 10% in 2005 compared with 22% in 2008.

Zoroya includes more stats in the full piece, and I've included more recent news clips for you in extended.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Liz Kowalczyk, Boston Globe:

The US military has awarded Brigham and Women’s Hospital a multimillion-dollar contract to pay for face transplants for veterans who have survived catastrophic war injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, but are left severely deformed.

The Department of Defense is hoping that the Boston doctors will be able to complete face transplants on six to eight patients over the next 18 months, which would nearly double the nine known procedures completed worldwide. In April, the Brigham performed its first face transplant, which was the second done in this country.

The $3.4 million award, which also will be used to provide the surgery to civilians, is a signal that face transplantation could be poised to move into mainstream medicine four years after the first such operation, on a French woman, was met with fierce ethical objections.

Doctors and military officials said they are unsure how many veterans will qualify but estimate the number could be as high as 200. Patients must be missing at least 25 percent of their faces and cannot be significantly helped by conventional plastic surgery, among other criteria. ...

Because of improved body armor and trauma care on the battlefield, more injured soldiers are surviving. There are nine wounded veterans for every fatality in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with three wounded for every death in prior conflicts, said Dr. Joseph Rosen, a plastic surgeon at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. But with the growing number of wounded veterans have come more severe injuries that the military is struggling to treat.

Many of the veterans with damage to their faces were injured by improvised explosive devices and are recuperating at Walter Reed. Although some have other injuries such as brain damage and missing limbs that limit their ability to work, others return to military jobs, living on or near bases. As is the case with civilians who have lost portions of their faces to burns, disease, or traumatic injury, some of these veterans struggle with going out in public, relationships, and work.

Carolyn Davis, Philadelphia Enquirer:

Worldwide, women make up about 14 percent of U.S. active-duty forces - the largest percentage in the country's history.

Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, women have accounted for 11 percent - or 231,876 - of the 2,022,975 U.S. service members in those conflicts. Figures from the end of October show 26,683 women currently deployed in those operations.

Of the 5,429 total enlistments into the active-duty Army in the last three years from the Philadelphia recruiting region, including the suburbs and all but the tip of northern New Jersey, 758 - or about 14 percent - were women.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women serve as fighter pilots and as security escorts for convoys, go on patrols and staff checkpoints - unlike in World War II, when at the peak of 400,000 female service members, the assignments were mainly as nurses and clerical workers.

More than 120 women have died during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 600 have been wounded in action. Though technically women are still barred from direct combat, unpredictable attacks, blurry front lines, and personnel demands have put them in the thick of battle.

Women also have reached higher ranks.

Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, 56, rose to the upper echelon of Army command last year when she became the first female four-star general. Dunwoody is in charge of the Army Materiel Command, which equips, outfits, and arms all soldiers. In even greater contrast to the traditional male image of the military is Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King, 48, named this year as the Army's top drill sergeant, leading all drill-sergeant training. ...

The nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says one-third of women were sexually harassed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been 163 reports of sexual assault in those military conflicts.

The military's response to pregnancy also is still evolving. Advocates for female service members are urging longer post-birth deployment deferrals for the 10 percent of military women who become pregnant each year. Critics say maternity leaves and months-long deployment deferrals hurt unit readiness. ...

Child care is a big concern: A 2007 congressional report says 38 percent of active-duty women have children; about 11 percent of active-duty women are single parents.

Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press:

Ortiz is one of the new faces among America's homeless veterans.

They're younger than homeless male veterans and more likely to bring children. Their number has doubled in the past decade, and there are an estimated 6,500 homeless female veterans on any given night — about 5 percent of the total homeless veterans population.

But women-only programs such as the one Ortiz participates in are few.

"It is always hard to find a place or resources or help when you are homeless," said Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "It is almost impossible if you are a woman. Most of the VA facilities cater to men, and you can't take a mom with two little kids and put her in the middle of a homeless center with 30 or 40 male veterans," said Murray, D-Wash.

The distressed economy only made things worse.

"People think we're just coming out of the military and we should have our stuff together," said Tiffany Belle, 33, a former Navy sailor who served in the Philippines after the Sept. 11 attacks and lives with Ortiz at the U.S. Vets program. "It gets really hard. Some people don't know where to go, what to do."

Like male veterans, many homeless female veterans face substance abuse and mental health problems. Many also struggle with sexual trauma that occurred in their childhood, in the military, or elsewhere.

Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor:

Emotional pain, depression, and angst among US soldiers seeing multiple deployments in war zones are much more common than the Pentagon has reported, a new Department of Veterans Affairs survey says.

Soldiers facing multiple deployments, moreover, are at least three times more likely to anonymously report problems of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than are those with a single deployment, according to the study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health. ...

The new VA study, however, says that up to 30 percent of soldiers seeing multiple deployments have psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress.

The study points out a potentially key caveat: National Guard troops may not be as well equipped to handle multiple deployments as are enlisted troops.

Another issue is the “buck up, soldier” attitude in the Army and Marine Corps. The VA survey finds that 53 percent of those who anonymously reported deployment-related problems did not let the Army know, fearing “mental health stigma” from officers and fellow soldiers. Moreover, 90 percent of soldiers who screened positive for alcohol dependence reported receiving no treatment in the past 12 months. ...

The VA study says another problem is that soldiers known by the Pentagon to be struggling mentally and physically are too often being redeployed. The Pentagon has reported that 43,000 medically unfit soldiers were pressed into service between 2003 and 2008, a practice which the Office of the Army Surgeon General warns can have adverse effects on the ability of soldiers to carry out their duties.

Associated Press:

A new study says Wisconsin veterans are more likely to commit suicide than the general population is. The report says veterans make up 8 percent of Wisconsin's population but committed nearly 21 percent of suicides in the state.

Kenneth Black is the secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. He says his department sees the issue of veteran suicide as a growing concern.

The study was conducted by the state Department of Health Services, the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a group called Mental Health America.

John Donnelly, Congressional Quarterly:

More U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives so far in 2009 than have been killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year, according to a Congressional Quarterly compilation of the latest statistics from the armed services.

As of Tuesday, at least 334 members of the military services have committed suicide in 2009, compared with 297 killed in Afghanistan and 144 who died in Iraq, the figures show.

Lawmakers in recent years have been increasingly concerned about the growing problem of military suicides, especially in the Army. They have been holding hearings, passing bills and approving billions of dollars more than requested to improve mental health care for military personnel and veterans.

But even those who have been most intensely focused on the issue said they found the new numbers alarming. So far in 2009, the Army has had 211 of the 334 suicides, while the Navy had 47, the Air Force had 34 and the Marine Corps (active duty only) had 42. ...

Moreover, the total number who have killed themselves in 2009 is probably higher than 334, because the figure does not include unavailable suicide statistics for 2009 for Marine Corps reservists or veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have left the service.

New York Times editorial board:

Here is a horrifying fact about the human cost of the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: The suicide rate among active duty soldiers has doubled since 2001. Officials talk of a near epidemic as they warn that the pace of suicides among soldiers and Marines is likely to top last year’s tally of 182 active duty members.

The numbers are even worse when suicides of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are included. There’s an average of 53 suicides a year among patients at veterans’ hospitals, plus an unknown number among the three out of four who never use veterans’ services.

Congress is rushing to enact prevention measures that should have been in place long ago. The Pentagon spending bill for next year provides for significant increases in mental health specialists and services to close the alarming gap in care. It is also preparing hearings to examine the possible link between repeated deployments and suicide.

Joe Seelig, Highlands Today:

Universities and colleges are waiting for tuition payments for thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, according to an Associated Press story that was published Tuesday. ...

About 277,000 veterans have signed up for school under the GI Bill across the country and only about 50,000 had been processed, he said.

Jenkins said the Heartland Workforce was also having problems getting applications sent through to the Department of Veterans Affairs because the fax machine telephone numbers are always busy.

In order to sign up for college, the applications are forwarded to the veterans' affairs office where they are processed and a reply is sent back, he explained.

"The kicker is the unemployment rate for vets is high, but you've got 277,000 signed up for school," he said, adding he didn't know if those numbers were counted among the unemployed. ...

Beyond the tuition, many of the veterans have had to wait for funds paid directly to them for housing and books, the story stated. To help cushion the blow, the VA issued $3,000 emergency checks to more than 68,000 veterans, but for some the money's run out.

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