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The Best Reporting on Mental Trauma and the U.S. Military (#MuckReads)

We’ve compiled some of the best journalism on the mental traumas faced by a generation of servicemen and women, and the military’s struggle to treat them.

U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Courtney P. Carr, left, and U.S. Army Col. Richard G. Moore, Jr. salute as a fallen soldier is received at Dover Air Force Base. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Last Saturday, ex-sniper Chris Kyle and fellow veteran Chad Littlefield were shot and killed at a Texas gun range. The accused shooter is a former Marine, who sources say suffered from PTSD after serving in Iraq. 

The murder has reignited conversation on the mental trauma suffered by hundreds of thousands of U.S. service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, the Department Veterans Affairs reported (PDF) that an estimated 22 veterans committed suicide per day in 2010. Suicides hit a record-high of 349 in 2012, and more active-duty soldiers died by suicide than in combat last year.

The wars may be winding down, but the battle against PTSD is far from over. We’ve compiled some of the best journalism on the mental traumas faced by a generation of service men and women, and the U.S. military’s struggle to treat them. 

Is PTSD Contagious?, Mother Jones, January 2013
When veterans return bearing the scars of war, what happens to the families supporting them? Mac McClelland digs deep into studies that suggest spouses, children and other family can show the same symptoms of PTSD.

Suicides Highlight Failures of Veterans’ Support System, The Bay Citizen/New York Times, March 2012
In the Bay Area, poor communication at the Department of Veterans Affairs has led to many desperate veterans falling through the cracks. Even with an elite PTSD center stationed in Palo Alto, some suicidal vets were turned away or prematurely discharged. Reporter Aaron Glantz has done extensive coverage on the VA as it struggles to serve the influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Aftershock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon, ProPublica and NPR, March 2012
As part of our Brain Wars series, we investigated a bomb blast that left five platoon members battling both traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. Their story illustrates a growing number of veterans facing psychological and cognitive difficulties: studies show an estimated 20 to 25 percent of military members that have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer some sort of TBI, PTSD, or a combination of those two injuries.

Welcome Home: The Story of Scott Ostrom (photo essay), Denver Post, December 2011
Photographer Craig Walker followed former Marine Scott Ostrom’s struggle to return to civilian life after two tours in Iraq. “Where do I find my peace after experiencing something like that?” Ostrom asks. “Is my peace just the absence of war?”

Brain Injuries Remain Undiagnosed in Thousands of Soldiers, ProPublica and NPR, June 2010
In 2010, we launched a joint investigation with NPR into the invisible war wounds left untreated in thousands of service members. The army’s screening system routinely missed signs of concussion and other brain injuries, leaving tens of thousands of soldiers without needed care. Beyond physical and cognitive damages, TBI can also cause behavioral problems in affected soldiers. 

After Combat, Victims of an Inner War, New York Times, August 2009
Two soldiers were killed in this single unit of the National Guard, but four would eventually take their own life. Their story speaks of the larger spike in soldier suicides during the Iraq War. In 2009, 310 soldiers killed themselves, a record surpassed in 2012.

'I am under a lot of pressure to not diagnose PTSD,' Salon, April 2009
Reporters Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin obtained a secret recording of a doctor saying he’d been discouraged from diagnosing PTSD, and told to treat veterans for anxiety disorder instead. (The Seattle Times covered a similar scandal at Madigan Health Services on the West Coast, which was under congressional investigation for its resistance to diagnosing PTSD.) As the cost of treating veterans’ trauma mounts, some say the military is looking for ways to keep the VA’s bill to a minimum. Benjamin and de Yoanna have covered PTSD and the military extensively, including a series of stories for Salon on the military mistreatment that contributed to multiple murders and suicides among soldiers. 

Walter Reed and Beyond, Washington Post, February 2007
Anne Hull and Dana Priest spotlighted systemic mistreatment and neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and several other veterans health facilities across the country. Vets seeking psychological care faced dizzying bureaucracy and an under-resourced system buckling under high demand. Though Walter Reed was home to the army’s largest psychiatric department, there was no specific PTSD center, and patients rarely received individual attention.

What did we miss? Let us know what stories you would include in the comments section. 

Mark Brunswick

Feb. 8, 2013, 4:46 p.m.

This series examines military sucides and pays attention to the rise of sucides in Guard and Reserves.

http://www.startribune.com/local/128130478.html

Kyle himself was suffering from his own demons and nightmares, like a merc. who joins the nightmares instead of counseling, and thought his form of therapy, grabbing a gun, especially the assault weapons of today, and using them to give therapy to others. Unlike many of us Vietnam Veterans who once we figured out what was going on, and the country ignored along with other war issues like paying for them and the results of, found the best was talking among those that equally understood, same should have been going on in the civilian community and the extreme trauma’s of. You live by the gun the gun most times seals the way you’ll exit that life, especially with the irresponsible who rush out to feed off the marketing and quickly buy more along with thousands more rounds of ammunition they’ll never never need and doesn’t have a lifetime shelf life!
USN All Shore ‘67-‘71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country ‘70-‘71

“Achilles and Vietnam,” by Jonathan Shay is essential reading on this topic.

Even more timely is “None of Us Were Like This Before,” which covers new and important dimension of mental health as it relates to torture during the “war on terror.”

Carole Tarrant

Feb. 8, 2013, 4:56 p.m.

Would like to offer up this, “Private Battles: Fighting Stigma, Finding Treatment for PTSD” by Roanoke Times reporters Beth Macy and Sarah Bruyn Jones. http://www.roanoke.com/multimedia/ptsd/  Opens with a familiar and tragic story of a returning vet’s death—this time shot by cops after high-speed chase.

Marcie Hascall Clark

Feb. 8, 2013, 5:04 p.m.

You will this excellent report by T Christian Miller here
http://www.propublica.org/article/injured-contractors-the-other-victims-of-battlefield-stress-224
along with others regarding PTSD and TBI which often go undiagnosed and untreated here
http://www.propublica.org/series/disposable-army
Military or Military Contractor the effects of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD and TBI will haunt our society as whole well into the future

Dr. Marguerite Bouvard

Feb. 8, 2013, 6:27 p.m.

Does anybody know or care that a veteran or soldier in combat is committing suicide every 65 minutes? The VA has fought against revealing the number of suicides for years. The media gives scant coverage to this or to the long wait for health care our veterans endure. The VA has just begun doing “dual diagnostics,” that would have saved so many lives. They know have one psychiatrist that helps veterans with drinking or drug problems so that they can then get the help they need, problems too many soldiers return with. Alcohol and drugs are taken to help with the dreadful pain and memories of the war. The war may be over for the country but it is not over for our soldiers and their families. Think of the Vietnam veterans who are dying of cancer from agent orange.

Bradford Hutchingson

Feb. 9, 2013, 12:57 p.m.

I will put my name out there to help any troop or vet who wants a listening ear.  I LIVE WITH, not “suffer from ” both mTBI, and PTSD, both from the LIE of the pseudo-science of psychiatry, and it’s grossly over-prescribed poison pills.  The misnomered “mental health’s system continues. to do more harm than good.  It’s not more money and taxes we need, but rather we need more personal connections among troubled troops and those civilians - anther veteran or not,- who can and will help. The shrinks have FAILED us all.

Nobody suicides who did not want to kill somebody else.(Fenichel.‘The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis’.).The diad of paranoia and depression is not properly considered. in most cases it seems.Persons with obvious signs of depression ie.difficulty in getting to sleep.waking during the night and waking early in the morning are probably also paranoid,the latter condition if not easily observable at interview should be identifiable with the use of an assessment instrument eg. MMPI. or newer short form tests. Whatever traumatic events have occured in the life of the person will exacerbate any elements of psychopathology(ie.character disorder) which has origins in childhood producing the PTSD effect.Medication,counseling.support.job retraining should all be part of rehabilitation.‘Working through’ is really the only way to effect a ‘cure’-which process may be ‘worse than the complaint’.At some point the ‘patient’ who has ‘dropped their bundle’ so speak has got to muster the strength to pick it up and keep going.They need to reach a turning point-essentially decide that they don’t want to be ‘punters’ anymore.It is true that exhortations to ‘bootstrap’ or ‘pull up your socks ’ don’t work. Fenichel’s advice that their ‘disorder’ or ‘neurosis’ is like an old coat-they are used to , comfortable to an extent with it and to ‘throw off the shibboleth of the past’is very difficult.Whilst not religious myself, Jesus advice to the ‘sick’ to ‘take up their beds and walk’ might only have seemed to work with persons inclined to ‘automatic obedience’..This is unlikely to have actually ‘cured’ them as they are still obeying orders. Are military personnel adequately ‘debriefed’ after service? A return to ‘civvy street’ for vulnerable types without it may precipitate a neurosis as they no longer have the ‘in loco parentis’ of their service years.Of course the PTSD, suicides,‘acting out’ of crimes and murders says as much about the inadequacy of the demobilisation process as it does about the veterans.It must NOT be forgotten that they are OUR responsibility.

Brett Daniels

Feb. 9, 2013, 11:34 p.m.

I’ve noticed recently that not only has PTSD claimed lives among young Vets, but it’s also effecting aging Vets as well. I can’t imagine that being diagnosed and getting help is an easy task; my cousin was diagnosed with PTSD 5 years AFTER he got out of the Marines. Nightmares haunted him and alcohol was the only thing that could relax him. He was so unaware of what VA benefits he was entitled to in order to get help, and he’s in his 30’s. Imagine how difficult it is for Vets in their 70’s or 80’s to find out what benefits are available to them as they age, along with how the VA system works. My buddy gave me a great book to read as I help my dad, who is one of those aging Vets, try to figure out how to navigate through the VA system. It’s called “Crack the VA” by Barbara Steinberg. You can check out her site and the book at http://www.blseldercare.com/. I think it’s a great resource to have and I truly believe others would benefit from reading it. Thanks for this post.

It frankly amazes me that the same people who demand we “support our troops” think of them as disposable, once they’re home.  Oh, so they shoot a few people before blowing their brains out.  As long as they get a hero’s funeral, it’s all good, right?

Every time I meet a veteran, I find myself more impressed with what he’s dealt with since his service than during it.

Dr. Bouvard is right, the travesty isn’t entirely the soldiers getting whacked in the head in the field.  Something far worse is hitting them.

Jeremy Schwartz

Feb. 11, 2013, 2:07 p.m.

In Texas, prescription drug overdoses are killing nearly as many veterans as suicide. For those with PTSD, 4 in 5 deaths are result of suicide, drug overdose or single car crash. http://www.statesman.com/s/special-report/uncounted-casualties/

As the ‘mad Hatter’ said-‘All have one and all must have prizes’.

Investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling has for years helped uncover the traumas of war and the US military’s cover-ups, incompetence, and callousness in response to combat stress and traumatic brain injuries.

One of his recent pieces is at http://www.alternet.org/story/150391/aftershock:_the_ticking_time_bomb_of_soldiers’_traumatic_brain_injuries?page=6,3&paging=off.

His multiple reports from Fort Carson revealed the continuing refusal (even after he revealed earlier mis-, mal-, and non-treatment) to treat PTSD and TBI seriously. See, for example, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10395101.

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