Follow the Story: Soldiers and PTSD

Categories: Iraq

Amid several new reports pointing to the heightened problem of soldier suicides and increased levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, an army official said Wednesday that suicides increased 13 percent from 2006 to 2007.

There were 115 troop suicides last year. About a quarter of those occurred in Iraq, ABC News reports.

The increases in suicides come despite a host of efforts to improve the mental health of a force stressed by the long and repeated tours of duty.

The efforts include more training and education programs, such as suicide prevention programs and a program last year that taught all troops how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and their buddies. Officials also approved the hiring of more than 300 additional psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals and have so far hired 180 of them. They also have added more screening to measure the mental health of troops.

The VA and the military have come under fire from advocacy groups lately who charge the government with being unprepared for the influx of PTSD and similar illnesses among soldiers returning home, despite the lessons it should have learned in Vietnam.

As reported in our earlier cover story on soldier suicides, since there is no draft in place, the U.S. military has been forced to rely on a relatively fixed number of soldiers to fight the wars on terror. For troops this means increased and repeated tours. This, alongside the guerrilla warfare experienced by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is contributing to heightened levels of combat related mental health problems.

On May 17, the Associated Press reported about a troubled marine who shot his brother and then himself two weeks after meeting President Bush. Staff Sgt. Travis N. Twiggs had been through four tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and months of therapy for PTSD.

He and his brother drove to the Grand Canyon, where their car was found hanging in a tree in what appeared to be a failed attempt to drive into the chasm.

The brothers carjacked a vehicle at the park Monday. Two days later they were at a southwestern Arizona border checkpoint, and took off when they were asked to pull into a secondary inspection area...Eighty miles (130 kilometers) later, the car was on the Tohono O'odham reservation, its tires wrecked by spike strips.

As tribal police and Border Patrol agents closed in, Twiggs, 36, apparently fatally shot his 38-year-old brother, Willard J. "Will" Twiggs, then killed himself.

His widow blames the military.

"All this violent behavior, him killing his brother, that was not my husband. If the PTSD would have been handled in a correct manner, none of this would have happened," she said in a telephone interview from Stafford, Virginia. ….

Besides the emotional toll suicide and combat related mental illness can have on families, researchers estimate soldiers’ inability to find appropriate help upon return home could cost the country billions of dollars down the road. As seen in Vietnam, untreated PTSD often contributes to higher levels of homelessness and criminal activity. PTSD and other similar diseases are so stigmatized in the military that soldiers often don’t seek professional help. Rather, they turn to alcohol and drugs to cope and end up in the criminal justice system. (See our story on local vet Tony Klecker who killed a 16-year-old girl while drunk driving.)

Minnesota recently became the second in the nation to pass a sentence mitigation bill that assists veterans suffering from mental health disorders facing criminal proceedings get help, as reported in City Pages.

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