The stories are pouring in. Large numbers of veterans returning from Iraq are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. A frequent reaction to both of these painful health challenges is the use and misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Veterans, closed out of meaningful support when they return from the frontlines, seek relief of their symptoms through self-medication. Some get better. Tragically others do not.
For some vets, many of them on longer-than-expected tours of duty, the self-medication begins even before they have left the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. A March 13 front-page story in the New York Times addresses the issue of drug use among soldiers: "It's clear that we've got a lot of significant alcohol problems that are pervasive across the military," said Dr. Thomas R. Kosten, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston. He traces their drinking and drug use to the stress of working in a war zone. "The treatment that they take for it is the same treatment that they took after Vietnam," Dr. Kosten said. "They turn to alcohol and drugs."
Then there are the heart breaking accounts of veterans who can't quiet the demons from war and are committing suicide. On March 13, CBS News reported on veteran Jonathan Schulze who killed himself after not receiving help from the V.A. Jonathan's father, Jim, talked about Jonathan's life after he returned from war, "In a matter of hours he could go from unbelievable anger and rage to just uncontrollable weeping." According to the CBS story, Jonathan turned to drugs, alcohol and fighting. When Jonathan tried to get help at a V.A. hospital, he was told he was twenty-sixth on a waiting list, and that they just didn't have enough beds for him. Four days later, he hanged himself.
In today's New York Times, Bob Hebert writes about the terrible case of Jeffrey Lucey, another young veteran who turned to alcohol and then suicide as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "By the time he came home, Jeffrey Lucey was a mess... He had nightmares. He drank furiously. He wrecked his parents' car. He began to hallucinate," Herbert's column states. Jeffrey's father, Kevin, found his son dead on June 22, 2004, after he hanged himself in their basement. The column describes Kevin's voice quivering as he says, "When we hear anybody in the administration get up and say that they support the troops, it sickens us."
One out of three returning Iraq War veterans is asking for mental health services. What is going to happen to all of the people who served their country and are now suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts? Many will end up using drugs, as many of us civilians do. Now on top of everything else going on, many of our veterans are going to have to worry about getting caught with illegal drugs and being arrested. Any service members who are incarcerated and separated from their families because of their addiction will become yet more "collateral damage" of this war. U.S. prisons are already filled with nonviolent drug law offenders, many serving long sentences for small amounts of drugs. It is easy for people to buy a bumper sticker and demand that we "support the troops" but, if we are going to walk the talk, we had better offer treatment--not a jail cell--or a tombstone as we help our brothers and sisters heal from war.