The Big Battle of Iraq Has Yet to Begin - At Home, Not Abroad

05/25/2011 12:35 pm ET
  • Tom Davis editor and Author, 'A Legacy of Madness'

The number of dead soldiers in Iraq continues to climb. Others lose their limbs when yet another IED blast blows up their transport vehicles as they move in and out of war-torn Baghdad.

The potential after-effects that soldiers may suffer from this war, however, has become one big ticking time-bomb that could explode the military's already fragile morale - if nothing is ever done about it.

And post-traumatic stress disorder has the potential to tear apart families already burdened by the roller-coaster ride of National Guard soldiers being called in-and-out of duty that they thought would simply help pay their college tuition.

Already, this PTSD enemy looks firmly entrenched: A recent report showed that 32 soldiers killed themselves in the war zone last year - a record high since the war began five years ago, according to The Hartford Courant.

The number of suicides in Iraq in 2007 climbed 18 percent from 2006, despite efforts by military officials to improve training and education in suicide prevention and mental health, The Courant reported.

The number of Army troops suffering from severe combat stress is "skyrocketing," rising from just over 1,000 new cases in 2003 to more than 28,000 soldiers today diagnosed with PTSD, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Yet, no one who has, or may have the power to do something - that being Congress, the Pentagon, Barack Obama, John McCain, President Bush and on and on - has come out with a clear-cut battle-plan for tackling post-traumatic stress disorder on a large scale.

On his website, Obama talks about recruiting more health professionals, improving screening, offering more support to families and making PTSD benefits claims fairer.

McCain, a former Vietnam POW, has advocated for disability benefits to veterans with cancer and other health problems caused by Agent Orange, and also treatment for tobacco-related illnesses and substance abuse problems. He's sponsored legislation to cover mental health care in military retiree health plans, according to his website.

But all those ideas lacks specifics. Finding out how they stand is also difficult; each candidate addresses PTSD only in hard-to-find places that are buried in their websites. PTSD is missing from their bombastic, speech-driven rhetoric.

On the Pentagon's website, there is little-to-no talk of casulties of the psychological kind - perhaps sending the message that the only way a soldier can be wounded is either by a bullet or a bomb.

Even the Army seems to recognize the obvious omission. Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army's top medical officer, has said he does not know how many additional soldiers suffer from symptoms of combat stress - such as hyper-vigilance, sleeplessness and irrational anger - and he does not know how many of these soldiers are receiving treatment, according to The Baltimore Sun.

"As a nation, our mental health capability is not adequate to the need," and the Army suffers from the same problem, Schoomaker recently told defense reporters.

He also said the Army needs 300 more top mental health professionals to care for the growing numbers of soldiers suffering from severe stress, according to the Sun. But the Army has filled only 180 of those positions.

Anyone who is familiar with the tragedy of the Vietnam era or, at the very least, how it was portrayed in history books, newspaper reports and movies, should know that PTSD has the next potential to be the wound that, for many soldiers, never goes away.

Indeed, symptoms of PTSD often don't show up right away, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Many Vietnam veterans, in fact, didn't report signs of illness until 10, or even 20 years after they served.

What's amazing is that signs of Iraq-related PTSD were first reported by The Associated Press four years ago, when the Army's first study of the mental health of troops who fought in Iraq found that about one in eight reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This was long before troop divisions that were shuffled out after the fall of Baghdad were forced to return and then, quite possibly, return again. Families who waited months for their loved ones to return were forced to, yet again, wait.

This was before the public really began to lose faith in the war, and then started to lose faith in President Bush, whose popular rating has fallen to Richard Nixon levels.

Whether troops leave Iraq sooner or later, managing PTSD is the battle that, for many, needs to begin now.