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Returning guardsmen receive little testing or evaluation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Christian Avard
Published: Wednesday September 27, 2006

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A Marine veteran set to appear at a Congressional hearing today is engaged in walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail barefoot to call attention to the problem of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans, RAW STORY has learned.

National Guardsmen returning from active duty receive little more than a questionnaire to determine whether or not they nay be at risk of developing the disorder – a set of reactions encompassing flashbacks, emotional shutdown, alcohol and substance abuse, and other symptoms.

In June 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed a current Veterans Administration study showing that 18 percent of the 45,880 veterans who had served in Afghanistan had been diagnosed with psychological disorders, including 183 with PTSD, while out of 168,528 Iraq veterans, 20 percent were diagnosed with psychological disorders, including 1,641 with PTSD. One out of six soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq acknowledged symptoms of severe deression and PTSD, while 6 in 10 of these same veterans said they were unlikely to seek help out of fear their commanders and fellow troops would treat them differently.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a long-term affliction that is difficult to diagnose right away. Some veterans will encounter it as they return home, while for others it will take a while to manifest itself. That is why some critics believe that a questionnaire and a one-hour assessment are not sufficient for returning vets.

One veteran's story

Some veterans, like Ron Zaleski from Long Island, NY, are calling on Congress to introduce legislation that will require mandatory testing and counseling for every soldier coming home from active duty.

Zaleski, the veteran who plans to walk the Appalachian Trail barefoot, was drafted in 1970 and served in the Marines from 1970 to 1972. “I was stationed in San Mateo, California and worked as a desk typist,” he explains. A fight with a Colonel nearly led to his being sent to Vietnam. “Just for doing something like that,” he says, “the Marines would send you off to fight without any hesitation.”

Ron was supposed to be deployed to Vietnam – to this day he doesn’t know why he wasn’t – but instead remained in San Mateo, while the five friends he’d been drafted with were deployed. None of them came home, and that haunts Ron to this day.

Ron has not worn any shoes since he left the Marines in 1972, but he kept his story to himself until recently. “I never told anyone why I was doing this. When people came up to me and asked why, they were only looking for a fight.”

“It wasn’t until last year, when a young boy came up to me and asked,” Zaleski continues. “I told him why, because he was non-judgmental. And I just told him I was doing my own penance.”

Ron knows that thousands coming home from the Iraq War will suffer from PTSD – and will not seek treatment. As a tribute to his friends who died in Vietnam, and on behalf of every U.S. soldier serving in combat overseas, Ron Zaleski is making the arduous walk to call attention to the plight of the many vets he believes need counseling but are unwilling or unable to ask for it.

“I was in denial about it for 33 years. I would’ve had nothing to do with veterans, but it’s always going to be a part of me,” Zaleski said in an interview with RAW STORY. “How the hell can we effectively cope with this trauma and how do we go about getting the help we need?”

Members of Congress call for mandatory counseling

Today, Rep. Jim McDermott, along with Reps. Jack Murtha, Michael Michaud, Senator John Kerry, and former Senator Max Cleland, will hold a press conference and Congressional Briefing calling for mandatory counseling. Ron Zaleski has made it to Washington, D.C. and plans to testify.

“The Defense Department is not entirely interested in what happens when veterans come home,” said Rep. McDermott in an interview with RAW STORY. “They are afraid of the numbers they’re going to face [regarding PTSD] and the current system they use is simply to say ‘we’re dealing with the problem, just put down some facts boy, say everything’s fine’ and then go home. Unfortunately, it’s not designed with the clear intention to deal with the problem.”

According to a report in Idaho’s Boise Weekly, one set of troops returning home through Fort Lewis, Washington, were given up to one hour of mandatory mental health assessments, performed by a team of Veterans Center counselors. Then, according to a confidential e-mail sent by a concerned public health official, “One person of influence made the in-processing screenings (along with many other important 'stations' to tell folks about their vet benefits) optional instead of mandatory.”

Whether this process is routine or only sporadic at other military bases, many wonder whether it goes far enough to prevent PTSD and fight back against the stigma and fear which prevent those who need help from seeking it.

“War cannot be defined as the first and last shots fired. The suffering will last much longer, and we need to do everything we can to alleviate the pain,” said Congressman McDermott. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is going to affect tens of thousands of soldiers, and we’ve got to do something about it.”

The Department of Defense responds

In an email submitted to RAW STORY, Cynthia Smith, the Department of Defense Media Liaison who handles PTSD-related issues, responded that, “no military in history has done more to identify, evaluate, prevent and treat mental health needs and concerns of its personnel than this Department of Defense. The DoD has aggressively reached out to support our military personnel before, during and after their deployments and their family members and the level of effort is unprecedented.”

“We have screened the health, including the mental health, of more than 1 million service members before and after deployments,” said Smith, “and placed combat stress/mental health teams in the theater to address needs and issues that arise during deployments. Our policy and our practice are to ensure that every deploying service member is fit both physically and mentally.”

McDermott acknowledges that the military – and a variety of mental health experts – are doing a better job now than they did when PTSD first became prevalent. Today, there are numerous outlets for support, such as PTSD hotlines, help networks, hospitals, and counseling centers. In addition, a March 2006 report in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than one-third of the troops who served in Iraq have sought help for mental health problems within a year of returning home.

But the crux of the matter remains how to remove the stigma for vets in obtaining the necessary help.

“Too many unseen wounds will go untreated unless we act. Just imagine if we, as a nation, could eliminate the stigma associated with PTSD. Imagine if we could get soldiers who need help to come in and get help. We could end so much suffering. Just because we cannot see the wounds PTSD causes does not make them any less terrible than the physical wounds we can see,” said McDermott. “It makes no difference whether you favor or oppose the war. Our soldiers serving in Iraq are heroes, and a grateful nation can honor these soldiers by ensuring they get the care they need and deserve, but may not ask for on their own.”

For more information contact the Veterans Administration, National Center for PTSD or visit PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within. You can also check out Ron Zaleski’s journey at The Long Walk Home.