Returned from Iraq and still at war

February 1, 2008

Eric Ruder explains how the politicians are failing the soldiers they sent to war.

THE YOUNG men and women sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan who manage to return home physically intact tend to count themselves among the fortunate. But they soon learn that the struggle to return to the lives they left behind has just begun for them.

A small but growing segment of veterans is losing that battle. They find themselves confronted by inner demons--reliving memories of the horrors of war, dwelling on the loss of fallen comrades, and tormented by nervous systems that seem stuck in a constant state of high alert after all those months in the field.

Any number of indicators show the consequences of these hidden scars--substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness, suicide and murder.

A New York Times investigative series found 121 cases of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who committed or were charged with murder after returning from war. A third of the victims were spouses, girlfriends, children or other relatives; a quarter were fellow servicemembers; and the rest were acquaintances or strangers.

During the six years before and six years after the war in Afghanistan began, homicides committed by active-duty personnel and recent veterans increased by 89 percent--from 184 to 349--according to the Times.

What stuns advocates for these troubled veterans, however, is the speed with which veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are showing up in these categories.

After a happy homecoming, 28-year-old Peter Mohan broke his collarbone in a car crash, touching off a downward spiral. When he moved to be closer to his wife, who had taken a new job, he suddenly found himself without friends--and privately warring with the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his military service.

He couldn't find a job. He turned to drinking and flirted with suicide. And when his wife felt she had exhausted her ability to help him and asked him to move out, he ended up in a homeless shelter.

"While many Vietnam veterans began showing manifestations of stress disorders roughly 10 years after returning from the front, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shown the signs much earlier," the Associated Press reported.

The disproportionate number of veterans among the homeless is a well-established trend, dating from the Vietnam years. "Veterans have long accounted for a high share of the nation's homeless," according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Although they make up 11 percent of the adult population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless on any given day."

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has identified about 1,500 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were homeless at some point in 2006--a small but growing proportion of the 336,000 veterans who were homeless that same year.

The VA contends it's doing what's necessary to help these veterans. It spends about $265 million annually on programs for homeless veterans. But compared to the $8 billion a month the U.S. is spending to put soldiers on the battlefield, the money for such programs--about 0.3 percent of annual war spending--is tiny.

THE VA has also failed to address the epidemic of suicide among veterans--a fact starkly revealed by a CBS News investigation that found the Department of Defense grossly understates the number of veterans who take their own lives.

The Pentagon only acknowledges 130 self-inflicted fatalities among U.S. military personnel in Iraq since 2003, but the U.S. Army alone reported 97 suicides in 2006. CBS News found that there were at least 6,256 suicides by veterans of all eras in 2005--an average of 120 a week.

Veterans of all ages were twice as likely as non-veterans to commit suicide, but among 20- to 24-year-olds, the suicide rate for veterans was two to four times higher.

"The Department of Defense has managed to keep what has clearly become an epidemic of death beneath the radar of public awareness by systematically concealing statistics about soldier suicides," wrote Penny Coleman, the widow of a Vietnam veteran who committed suicide and author of a book entitled Flashback: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War.

"They have done everything from burying them on official casualty lists in a category they call 'accidental non-combat deaths' to outright lying to the parents of dead soldiers. And the Department of Veterans Affairs has rubber-stamped their disinformation, continuing to insist that their studies indicate that soldiers are killing themselves, not because of their combat experiences, but because they have 'personal problems.'"

Politicians try to muzzle antiwar critics with the charge that they don't "support the troops"--at the same time that the military and political establishment has failed to address the basic needs of returning troops.

In reality, it's the antiwar movement that stands for both the immediate withdrawal of troops from harm's way--and increased funding for health and other services that veterans deserve and desperately need.

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