Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Casualties of war

If you doubt Gen. Sherman was right when he said “war is hell,” consider the research presented at today’s “Veterans Health Care and Health Risks” session.

Miranda Worthen of San Jose State University talked of two studies that found anger is a common problem for veterans and severely limits their ability to return to a normal life after combat. Howard Waitzken, a University of New Mexico professor and practicing doctor, gave a chilling account of what happens to some enlisted soldiers who come back home from Iraq or Afghanistan with severe mental and physical problems.

Once such soldier who reached out to the Civilian Medical Resources Network had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he witnessed the death of several close friends as well as Iraqi children. One of his assignments while deployed involved removing blood and body parts from a military vehicle. The man went AWOL after being told he would soon be redeployed to Afghanistan. He sought help from the network for mental health problems that included suicidal thoughts and a desire to kill.

Another soldier had suffered two fractured vertebrae in Iraq, resulting in numbness in his legs and other health problems. He was scheduled to be redeployed to Iraq in two weeks when he sought help from the network, which provides free or reduce-priced mental health and medical care for the military.

“The unmet needs of active-duty GIs deserve more concerted attention by the medical profession and by our society’s leaders, as do more successful strategies for peace,” Waitzken said.

Worthen’s research that found service members and veterans suffer a high burden of anger points to a need for more research and outreach, she said.

“We can envision interventions at every layer,” she said. “The first would be to end war and war-time traumas.” Also, medications could help manage anger, as could community-based programs to support families.

Worthen said her research has found even small gestures can help combat veterans.

“As a non-military connected person doing this research, one of the things that really struck me is that veterans really did experience a lot of trouble returning to civilian life,” she said. “Just saying 'thank you' to somebody in a uniform or to have a show of support with a yellow ribbon actually really did make a difference. I encourage all of us to think about that.”

For more on veteran health from the APHA Annual Meeting, click here.

— D.C.

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