Returning soldiers find reintegration difficult
Sufficiency of mental health services questioned
Within the first summer of the war in Iraq a sergeant of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Delta Force and his wife were found dead in their home at the Fort Bragg military complex in North Carolina.
The case, largely suspected of being a murder-suicide, represented the last of a string of four similar instances that summer of returned soldiers killing their wives and then themselves.
Despite efforts at and since that time by major military figures and institutions to assign responsibility specifically to the individual soldier in question, many within the field of mental health services suggest such severe behaviors are indicative of larger issues.
According to psychiatrist and UC Davis professor Rick Maddock, the most startling of these larger issues relates to the 20 to 30 percent of soldiers who are, only after extended periods of combat, clinically diagnosed with some psychological abnormality.
"Combat is so extreme [that] it does harm on the person's understanding of how the world works," Maddock said. "It's a fragmenting of life experience [whereby] the narrative doesn't make sense any more and the [returned soldiers] can't put the first book of their life with the new chapters."
The central challenge of the veteran's reintegration becomes rediscovering a sense of purpose amid a life once so far removed. Even while the joy of returning home is immense, many veterans are overwhelmed by grief, anger, depression and guilt.
Maddock described these reactions as a direct function of the traumatic experiences of war: seeing fellow soldiers killed in combat, the challenge of distinguishing civilians from enemies, combating enemy insurgency and living up to the extreme pressures of military duty.
In any combination, these reactions recurrently lead to post-traumatic and/or acute stress disorders which in turn manifest negatively through substance addiction, homelessness, emotional and communicative numbness or physical illness.
Though no one is immune to the effects of war, some soldiers are simply better equipped for coping with painful stressors. Those who aren't too frequently go unnoticed for extended periods before and after deployment.
Ted Puntillo, a Davis city councilmember and Vietnam veteran, cited the U.S. Military's inadequate screening of these "people who can't cope" as a principal factor in the proliferation of posttraumatic psychosis.
"Half of the people I talk to who come back [from the Iraq War] have some sort of PTSD," Puntillo said.
Even Puntillo himself, who maintains a positive remembrance of his Vietnam experience, struggled for a period with episodes of hyper-vigilance -- a common symptom for nearly all newly returned soldiers.
"When I first got back I went through a shock," Puntillo admitted. "I'd be looking for dead bodies and bullet holes everywhere I went."
The predominance of guerilla-style warfare -- with no definitive front line or clearly distinguishable enemies -- intensifies the soldier's struggle to reintegrate.
Even after actively seeking discipline and self-improvement both physically and scholastically, Dan Wolrich, a UCD student and veteran sergeant with the 15th Marine Expenditure Unit in Iraq, quickly found the atmosphere of war to be "unbelievably exhausting."
"Life over there was unpleasant in every sense," Wolrich said. "War really sucks [when] you see friends suffer, [and] Iraqis suffer."
Still, Wolrich ultimately defined his military career as a Russian cryptologic linguist as "fortunate," especially in hindsight. However, much of Wolrich's good fortune and success as a veteran is due in part to the clinical attention provided to him before and after deployment -- attention not necessarily provided as readily to less specialized reservists.
Soldiers who are identified early on as having some mental health issue can take advantage of a range of social work programs in and around military bases. These programs operate under a practical paradigm of prevention and treatment of the problem through pre-deployment briefing and post-deployment therapy.
Whether out of volition or requirement, Puntillo considered that "just having someone to talk to can help."
Yet despite all that is offered, many feel that undiagnosed soldiers still slip through the cracks.
Last May over a dozen members of Congress addressed this growing concern in a signed letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld demanding more ample mental-health services for active-duty and reserve personnel and their families.
Since then, two programs in particular, Courage to Care and Operation Comfort, have established both actual and web-based mental health services: networking psychiatrists, therapists and other such professionals in the mental health field.
These programs strive to achieve stable-minded veterans like Puntillo and Wolrich.
"When I graduate I hope to get a job that really matters," Wolrich said. "If there's something I can do to help prevent suffering, it is definitely high on my list."
DAVID ASEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.