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September/October Issue

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Featured Stories / Letters / President's Message / VVAF Report / Government Relations / Ask The Parliamentarian / Veterans Benefits Update / Membership Affairs Committee Report / Legislators View / ETABO Committee Report / PTSD Substance Abuse Comittee Report / TAPS / Region 7 Report / AVVA Report / SHAD/Project 112 Task Force Report / Veterans Against Drugs Task Force Report / VetsConnect Report / Homeless Veterans Task Force Report / Women Veterans Committee Report / Arts of War / Book Review / Membership Notes / Chapter of The Year / Locator / Reunions

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PTSD/Substance Abuse COMMITTEE REPORT

BY TOM BERGER, CHAIR

The Leadership Conference is over and initial reports indicate that it was a great success. The two PTSD seminars were well-attended and (according to the evaluations) they were very well received. Thanks to the Conference Planning Committee, VVA staff, Bill Messer and the Arizona State Council, the presenters (Fr. Phil Salois, Randy Barnes, Nancy Switzer, and Tony Catapano), and everyone who helped distribute the seminars’ handouts.

In an August 8 article, USA Today reported that the House and Senate Appropriation Committees were poised to cut funding by half for traumatic brain injuries (TBI) caused by bomb blasts. The funding was to be used for research and treatment of war-related brain injuries as part of the 2007 Defense appropriation bill.

House and Senate versions of the 2007 Defense appropriation bill contain only $7 million for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center—half of what the center received last fiscal year. The Brain Injury Center has received more money each year of the war—from $6.5 million in fiscal year 2001 to $14 million last year.

Spokespersons for the appropriations committees in both chambers said that the cuts were due to a tight budget this year. Seven military and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, including the center’s headquarters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and one civilian treatment site, all work on diagnosing and treating service members who suffer brain damage.

According to George Zitnay, co-founder of the center, “Traumatic brain injury is the signature injury of the war on terrorism.” As of January 2006, 20 percent of those injured in Iraq had TBI after suffering concussions during their tours. Scientists say that multiple concussions can cause permanent brain damage. Many experience headaches, disturbed sleep, memory loss, and behavior issues after coming home. The center has long urged the Pentagon to screen all troops returning from Iraq in order to treat the symptoms and create a database of brain-injury victims. So far the Pentagon has declined to conduct TBI screening and argues that more research is needed.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced legislation that calls for the VA to develop a better program to prevent suicides among veterans returning from Iraq. Under their bill, the VA would be required to provide suicide-prevention education for staff members, insure 24-hour access to mental health care for veterans deemed at risk of suicide, and create a family education program. At the time of this writing, Sens. Brownback (R-Kansas), DeWine (R-Ohio), Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Snowe (R-Maine), and Talent (R-Mo.) have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill is named for Iowa Army reservist Joshua Omvig, who committed suicide in December 2005. According to an article in the Des Moines Register, Omvig suffered from untreated Post-traumatic Stress Disorder following an 11-month tour of duty in Iraq. On the House side, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) has introduced similar legislation.
It’s difficult to find accurate statistics on veteran suicides. The figure most commonly given for OEF and OIF veteran suicides is 79. However, that figure is misleading because the count started in 2003 and only includes those veterans receiving care within the VA healthcare system.

As many Vietnam veterans know, substance abuse often goes hand in hand with PTSD. Among Vietnam veterans seeking treatment for PTSD, 60 to 80 percent have alcohol-use disorders, according to the National Center for PTSD. And things are not looking much better for our current troops.

In the July 16 issue of Stars and Stripes, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, noted: “The world is speculating that PTSD will be higher among troops who have been to Iraq more than once.”

Last November, an Army Mental Health Advisory Team finished looking at troops in their third Iraq rotations, but it has been eight months since the team returned, and it has yet to file a report. Ritchie said the information wasn’t in yet.

If mental health issues among troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are on the rise, programs such as the Army Substance Abuse Program will soon find themselves overwhelmed. In the same article, Robert McCollum, who runs the Army Substance Abuse Program for the Installation Management Agency-Europe, said the program’s offices across the continent already are feeling the pressure. “My people are busy. Their plates are full,” he said.

So, if substance abuse among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD follows the course of Vietnam veterans, what does the future hold for our nation’s newest veterans?

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