G. I. mental health

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(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans is concerned about the mental health of veterans returning from the war in Iraq.

(SEAMANS) There is no dirtier, tougher, more brutal and stressful combat than the house-to-house fighting and patrolling faced by our army and marine corps infantrymen in Iraq. We count the toll of dead and wounded who come home in flag draped coffins or bound in bandages. They are the visible casualties. But the character of the extreme guerilla war in Iraq is sending tens of thousands of our service persons home with invisible wounds.

The stress of fighting an almost hidden enemy and the strain of extended tours of duty are having a severe effect on the mental health of many of our returning vets. They have survived what they call a 360-degree war: the enemy can pop up anywhere around the troops; there are no front lines. The returning G. I.’s tell us that you are stressed to the limit when you fear that you’re going to be the next victim of a suicide car bomb or a hidden roadside explosive or even a sniper firing from a mosque that is supposedly a holy sanctuary.

The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that 15 to 17 percent of Iraq war veterans suffer from major depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also called PTSD. It’s apparent to this observer that, while the medical profession is more respon- sive to this problem than ever, there is a job ahead for the news media through diligent and sensitive reporting to create a greater public awareness of this hidden suffering of so many veterans.

The reason should be obvious. Those returning home from war need all the support we can give them as they face the problems of readjustment. They need as much help and empathy as pos- sible because the burden of PTSD has shown that it can lead to higher divorce rates, domestic abuse, alcohol and drug problems.

Even more serious, according to information gathered by an organization of Iraq combat veterans called Operation Truth, the Pentagon says that 30 troops have committed suicide while part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and that no agency keeps track of the number of discharged vets who kill themselves. So an accurate count is impossible.

The veterans mental health problem apparently is getting so big that the General Accounting Office has reported that the Veterans Administration does not know how many vets are now being treat- ed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or whether the VA will be able to handle an expected new influx of vets with PTSD.

As I said earlier, the Iraq war will not end for many veterans who come home, and it’s up to the news media to make an extra effort to make the public aware that some of the veterans in their com- munities are suffering the invisible wounds of war for which they don’t get the Purple Heart.

We the people must help them as much as possible.

This is Bill Seamans.

Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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