Difficult Homecoming

Local collaborative raises awareness for vets who have invisible disabilities

The concept “wounded war veteran” generally suggests an obvious physical injury. Yet it may surprise readers to learn that, by far, the most common war injuries—both today and in past wars—are the invisible wounds. Somewhere between a fifth to a third of all Vietnam veterans developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many suffered for years before learning the cause of their symptoms and getting treatment and/or disability compensation. Three times more Vietnam veterans have killed themselves after returning home than were killed in Vietnam. Currently, 44% of Gulf War I veterans are receiving disability payments for a variety of conditions.

No one knows how high the disability rate for the current wars will be, but emerging numbers are quite alarming. Already one-third of returning soldiers are receiving psychiatric diagnoses, and that rate is likely to increase with time.

One of the local efforts to address this crisis with returning vets (and their families) is the Coming Home Collaborative (CHC). CHC is an open and growing volunteer association of people who are concerned with the needs of veterans, especially those currently re-integrating with their families and communities. The collaborative seeks to stimulate early intervention to prevent the secondary losses that often occur to people with undiagnosed disabilities, like loss of relationships, jobs, homes, and sobriety. In its work within faith communities, the CHC hopes to help people recover from the invisible wounds of war, especially the spiritual aspects of post-war responses.

Since this year’s Veteran’s Day is a Sunday (11/11./07), the CHC is urging churches to observe the traditional 11 a.m. two minutes of silence in prayer for the health and healing of our military. Says Mark Smith, LICSW of CHC, “A small percentage of our citizenry—military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families—are making great sacrifices.

Many soldiers are returning from the Middle East with combat stress syndrome that has the potential to impair them for life. We hope that local churches can use Veterans Day as a way to get involved in the healing journey for these sisters and brothers.”

 

Invisible Wounds, Unseen Disabilities

The Combat Stress Unit officers based at Ft. Snelling say that currently every soldier returns from deployment with combat operational stress reaction (see the accompanying box for signs and symptoms.) It is not known what percentage of those with combat operational stress—without intervention—will end up with a long-term disability.

Post-deployment depression and anxiety are common for military personnel. Less commonly understood is PTSD.

People with PTSD suffer clinically significant distress or long-term loss of functioning after a trauma such as assault, or rape (experienced by a quarter of women soldiers). Sufferers typically re-experience the trauma sensations. Veterans may experience flashbacks in which they believe themselves to be in combat. They may be troubled by memories, feel numbed to emotions, avoid situations that might trigger painful memories and feelings, and anger or startle easily.

Invisible wounding also includes Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which has been called the “signature injury” of this war because of the prevalence of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) injuries. Shock waves from an explosion can cause damage without the victim even knowing it.

Toxins can also cause invisible wounds. The military has an unfortunate pattern from the Vietnam and Gulf wars of denying the impact of war-related toxins (such as Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome) for years before awarding healthcare and disability benefits. Many soldiers were exposed to the aftermath of the explosion of the armory at the Baghdad-area Camp Falcon on October 10, 2006. So far, the military has provided no information about what toxins may have been released.

The VA now recognizes fourteen medical conditions (including diabetes and testicular cancer) as having been caused by the toxins of Agent Orange-type substances. Many widows of Vietnam veterans may be entitled to benefits if their deceased spouse had one of these conditions, since some soldiers in Vietnam had been given milk unknowingly reconstituted with dioxin-laced water. Veterans should document their exposure to toxins and traumas while they still have the memory and before they lose contact with witnesses.

 

Getting Help

“The dilemma,” says Gary Schoener, director of Walk-In Counseling Center and founding member of CHC, “is how to get help to those who need it without stereotyping all veterans as ‘troubled’ This is particularly challenging since much of the invisible wounding is complicated by denial, anger, self-isolation, forgetfulness and distrust.”

Once source of help, of course, is the Veterans Affairs administration—a massive bureaucracy that is charged with providing health care and benefits to veterans and their families. Veteran’s Service Officers for each county can help people receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

An experienced veteran’s service officer recommends that those who send in a disability claim limit themselves to a one page description. He says that since the employees must process a certain number of claims per day, they tend to complete the thin files first!

The Government Accountability Office is investigating reports that some soldiers who have symptoms of PTSD or TBI have been offered lump sum payments if they will sign a form admitting to a different diagnosis, such as personality disorder, which is not service-related. While the settlement is tempting, it is small change to the amount they may be entitled to over a lifetime of disability.

Beyond advocacy for governmental support, however, CHC is researching how veterans can heal from trauma. Organizers believe that faith communities can play a significant role in promoting best outcomes for veterans. They hope that many groups will use this year’s Sunday Veterans Day as a springboard for organizing their members and reaching out to the returning veterans and their families in their midst, offering support for the difficult journey of coming home from war.

Amy Blumenshine, MSW, convened the CHC in 2005. For more info about CHC, e-mail ListenToVets@comcast.net For Veteran’s Day ideas, visit www.mpls-synod.org/resources/vets_resources.html

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