Mental disorders affecting more veterans

By Gus Bode

One month after returning from the war in Iraq, Benjamin Jones of DuQuion was a new father. But instead of attending Lamaze classes and picking out a new crib with his wife, he was in the heat of battle, stopping occasionally to pick up fallen comrades piece by piece.

From January to June of 2003, Jones was a Marine fighting in Iraq. Now a father, he has a hard time suppressing the violent memories and was recently diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. And he’s not alone.

According to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, as many as one of four veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq treated at Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past 16 months were diagnosed with mental disorders.

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PTSD was the most common diagnosis, afflicting 10 percent of patients. The psychiatric disorder often occurs after experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, serious accidents, personal assaults or terrorist incidents.

People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience via flashbacks and nightmares and have difficulty sleeping and often feel estranged or detached.

Lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., worry VA hospitals won’t be able to handle the influx of veterans with PTSD, particularly after large funding cuts in VA psychiatry programs in recent years and the limited number of doctors trained in dealing with PTSD, which wasn’t diagnosed until 1980.

To combat the possible problem, Durbin will soon introduce a bill requiring every VA medical center to establish a PTSD clinical team trained to treat the disorder. The bill also requires the VA include a family therapist at every center and a PTSD coordinator in every region.

Jones, who was one of four veterans who met Durbin Friday at John A. Logan College to talk about PTSD, said getting treatment for his disorder has been difficult.

Jones was diagnosed at the VA facility in Marion, where he declined drugs to treat the disorder. He said he believes therapy will be more beneficial, but the hospital is so busy that appointments have to be made three months in advance. He was diagnosed three months ago and has yet to see a therapist.

“There are really good doctors at the VA, but they just don’t have the time,” said Stephanie Stretch, a national guardsman who also served in the Iraq war.

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Stretch has been home for more than a year but has only seen a doctor twice about her PTSD. Stretch said for a lot of soldiers, it is difficult to admit mental disorders, particularly for fear of being denied promotions or being stigmatized.

“None of us want to say what problems we have,” Stretch said. “Most people don’t want to talk about it, but I have nightmares. I have trouble telling the difference between nightmares and reality.”

Durbin said Congress “needs to do our job” and not just put money into the war itself but into the people who fight the war or face the same situation many veterans returning from Vietnam faced, where they were chastised for fighting in an unpopular war and not offered any help.

“I can guarantee that soon someone will come to us and say they need $80 billion for the war, and they will get that,” Durbin said. “But the veteran’s administration needs it too. We need to stop cutting their funding and put resources into more doctors, counselors and psychologists.”

Reporter Monique Garcia can be reached at [email protected]

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