The War on Addiction Comes Home - Page 2

By Jeff Forester 11/10/11

Combat veterans with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries are suffering from skyrocketing rates of addiction, alcoholism and suicide. Thirty-five years after Vietnam, is America creating another lost generation?

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A Pew Research report published on October 5th, 2011 supports Meshad's point. While over 90% of veterans are proud of their service, 44% report they have had difficulties readjusting to civilian life, 37% say they have suffered PTSD (whether or not formally diagnosed), 48% felt strains in family relationships, and 47% frequently feel irritable or angry.

The report states, “Among all post-9/11 veterans who report having had traumatic experiences during their time in the military, 72% say they have had flashbacks, repeated distressing memories or recurring dreams of those incidents. Among post-9/11 combat veterans, the share is slightly higher—75% of those who say they had traumatic experiences while they were in the service also say they've had flashbacks or nightmares related to those incidents.”

“The military is issuing prescription meds like anti-anxiety and pain medications to troops in combat to keep them from breaking down.”

In 2008, the New York Times reported that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had committed 121 homicides, but most of the crimes were related to drugs and alcohol; one in four veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 met the criteria for a substance abuse disorder, and 18 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States—a casualty rate that will continue long after the wars end. The Rand study estimated that returning veterans with PTSD and depression will cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years following deployment.

But the addiction and alcohol issues are not only due to PTSD. Says Hunter, “The military is issuing prescription meds like anti-anxiety and pain medications to troops in combat to keep them from breaking down—and to keep them functioning.” Psychologists are unsure of the impact, but some suggest that by using drugs to keep soldiers functioning who have already been exposed to multiple traumatic events they continue to be exposed when they would otherwise have broken down.

“We've got medicated soldiers fighting because that's all the military has got,” says Meshad. “They have to recycle the soldiers back to the battlefield.” Soldiers with battle wounds are given Oxycontin and fentynal. “Pain medications are a big deal,” Hunter reports. “Vets get addicted and then their prescription ends and they have go out and get it illegally.”

The VA, to its credit, has far better services for soldiers suffering from PTSD than it did for Vietnam era veterans. Yet despite the improvements, the VA is a vast bureaucracy facing a flood of mental health issues. Funding for veterans services requires annual appropriations from Congress, making the survival of vets' programs a constant political football. The biggest problem is that soldiers with PTSD don't go into the VA and ask for help.

 

First Sergeant Hector Matascastillo lost his family and went to jail after having his flashback. Still, he resisted the idea that he was suffering from a mental health disease.

“The stigma is still very much out there,” he says about seeking help. “As I was realizing that I was not well, I thought if I can't handle this, my superior won't move me forward.” He pauses. “The quick, easy way to deal with flashbacks was to numb it by drinking or even 'Nyquilize' myself so I could sleep.”

One Afghanistan combat veteran interviewed for this article laughs when asked about the idea of a soldier asking for help. “Right, a guy admit he's weak,” he says. “They'd be on him like jackals.”

So the soldiers won't talk to caseworkers, psychologists, or even writers for The Fix. But PTSD, alcoholism and addiction are family diseases, and the wives do talk—but only off the record, and even then only through the relative anonymity of the Internet. Sites like FamilyOfaVet.com, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping heroes and their families survive and thrive after combat, are avenues of hope for isolated wives and family. When I posted on one site for this story, emails trickled into my inbox. The wives want to talk, but they're guarded, suspicious and maintain anonymity. After all, living with a husband suffering from PTSD is a form of combat in itself, and the disease is contagious.

One woman wrote, “I am glad to contribute as long as none of my personal info is used… I am rarely away from my husband and he doesn't want me talking to anyone about him. My husband was diagnosed with PTSD during his first tour…TBI during his 2nd tour. After he…came home…he was very stand off-ish, going out to our garage…alone…in the middle of the night and just sit in the dark. He started sleepwalking…crazy mood changes…an explosive temper…he is…an almost daily drinker…his mind going 24/7. He wants something to block that even if just for a short time.”

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.