The war in Iraq has raged for five years – the war in Afghanistan even longer. And more than ever before, the battles are being fought, not just by full-time, active duty military, but by the National Guard and Reserves.
On Thursday, a researcher from West Virginia University testified to Congress about the impact on these citizen-soldiers. They have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, especially in rural areas. But almost half of the veterans who need help aren’t getting it.
Dr. Joseph Scotti told the Senate Veterans Affairs committee about a survey of hundreds of West Virginia guard members, sponsored by the state Legislature.
He discovered that members of the National Guard experienced the horrors of war just as much as full-time soldiers, sailors and marines.
"In West Virginia, the members of the National Guard and Reserve had experienced as much combat exposure as active duty personnel, Scott says. "So they were right up there on the front lines, experiencing as much in terms of witnessing death and experiencing danger."
Despite that, they receive less preparation and less support when they return.
"These are our citizen soldiers," he says. "With a short notice, they are put through an intensive training and sent to a war zone. And then, with almost equally short notice, brought home and given a couple of days to decompress, and sent right back to their families and jobs. We know from the past, like the Vietnam War, that doesn’t work very well."
In the survey, veterans answered questions about their mental state, and Scotti and other researchers scored them. More than one-third had post-traumatic stress disorder, and almost half scored high on either PTSD or depression.
Guard members are more likely to suffer from psychological problems than active-duty personnel. And rural veterans report more problems than urban ones.
"It's certainly harder to get to the VA, it’s harder to get to the Vet Centers," Scotti says. "We have community-based outpatient clinics throughout the state, but they primarily have a primary care, medical function and not a psychological, mental health function. So even if they get there, if the physicians don’t recognize their difficulties in the mental health area, then they’re kind of sunk."
Senator Jay Rockefeller is the longest-serving member of the Veterans Affairs committee. He admits there are major problems, but that Congress is committed to fixing them.
"And because of the Iraqi-Afghan situation, and all the new injuries, traumatic brain injuries and now eye injuries and traumatic stress disorder, which we had known about but which came to us instantly on television, about seven seconds later. It kind of woke the Congress up," Rockefeller says.
Rockefeller visited a clinic for veterans in Logan earlier this week. He says rural clinics like this one are one solution.
"I’d say smother West Virginia in places that people can get to easily and talk in a comfortable setting, like this, on a first floor, not in some big building somewhere. And then solve their problems," Rockefeller says.
Scotti wants Congress to fully fund “homecoming programs” which follow veterans long after they leave the service.
Also, he says more training is needed for those on the front-lines of taking care of veterans. Especially in rural areas, they’re more likely to reach out to their minister or doctor than a mental-health professional.
According to the survey, most veterans know about the services available to them, but between one-third and one-half of veterans with psychological problems aren’t receiving treatment.
Scotti says the mental health system failed Vietnam Vets. He hopes we won’t let down our newest veterans.
"The Vietnam Generation taught us about our failures," Scotti says. "They brought to out minds in psychology and mental health, just what PTSD is. I’m praying that we’ll do better and I think we’ve already done better. But there is great room for improvement."