WASHINGTON Retired U.S. Navy medic Charlie
Anderson twice thought about committing suicide: once when he
feared he would be sent back to Iraq in 2004 and again last
year when a friend and fellow veteran killed himself.
"I can't say that I can't go because we don't do that, I
also can't go because I'm putting people in danger if I do," he
said of his first brush with suicidal thoughts, which came
while he was awaiting his second deployment.
In the end, Anderson was not deployed but it sparked a
two-year effort to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), one of thousands of soldiers returning from the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan facing a battle to re-enter everyday life.
While much of the attention has been on physical wounds
like traumatic brain injuries, as well as squalid living
conditions for recovering soldiers, doctors, families and
lawmakers are expressing growing concerns that veterans are not
be getting the right mental health help.
Those worries come as President George W. Bush has ordered
almost 30,000 more troops to Iraq. Already 1.5 million soldiers
have been deployed in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, with
one-third serving at least two combat tours, which increases
the chances of PTSD.
Despite finally receiving treatment, Anderson finds himself
in the middle of a divorce and still constantly on edge --
jumpy at loud noises and always eyeing the exits of rooms.
"I have triggers every day, but I'm learning how to deal
with them," he said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 12 percent to
20 percent of those who served in Iraq suffer from PTSD. A 2004
Army study found 16.6 percent of those returning from combat
tested positive for the disorder.
Individuals suffer from PTSD if they relive the trauma,
experience emotional numbness, isolation, depression, substance
abuse, and memory problems. These often lead to job instability
and marital troubles.
"I see a range of people coming in from a level of having
PTSD but not being severely handicapped and dysfunctional, then
I see other people who are really, really handicapped and
dysfunctional," said Dr. Wayne Gregory, a psychologist at the
Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System.
Two studies in the last month have shown more than 30
percent of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan met the
criteria for a mental disorder, with the American Psychological
Association (APA) finding at best that 40 percent sought help.
"Now people are getting out of the service and they're
beginning to seek help," said Dr. Paul Hicks, professor of
psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Texas A&M's Health
Science Center College of Medicine.
"We don't know when or if that will level off. It's got to
level off at some point, but we haven't reached that point," he
A study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine
found 13 percent of almost 104,000 veterans evaluated suffered
from PTSD. Mental illness "threatens to bring the war back home
as a costly personal and public health burden," it said.
Congress has ordered the Pentagon to establish a mental
health task force, though its findings won't be presented until
"We have put them in very stressful situations and often
times people need help and that help should be made available,"
said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat.
The Pentagon is already on the defensive about medical
treatment for soldiers after an investigation found shoddy
living conditions for troops recovering from physical injuries
at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress last month
that the number of troops who tested positive for a mental
health condition after being deployed was lower, 22 percent.
A Defense Department (DOD) spokeswoman defended its
practices, noting mental health teams were in the field and
they had begun a new program this year to also screen troops
three to six months after they return home.
"DOD has been aggressively reaching out to support our
military personnel before, during and after their deployments
and their family members, this is unprecedented," said Pentagon
spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.