Growing number of veterans endure mental problems
Bowling Green, Ky. — One Bowling Green veteran remembers too well the deep depression and mental breakdown that haunted him after years of combat. Decades after serving in the military, the man still does not want his name connected to his condition.
“That’s one of the main problems in combat,” he said. “It’s what it does to you mentally.”
A growing number of veterans are reporting mental problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are just a few issues veterans encounter when they return home.
While help is available, there are many services that veterans simply don’t know about or do not take advantage of, local veterans say. Those services range from medical to financial help.
Anxiety and depression
About 37 percent of veterans who returned after Sept. 11, 2001, say they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – about 16 percent reported the disorder before 9/11, according to the Pew Research Center.
There are more instances of PTSD and other disorders, partly because of the nature of the latest wars. Many soldiers were deployed multiple times – they would deploy for a while, then come home and then deploy again. They were constantly adjusting and readjusting, which creates an emotional roller coaster, said 1st Sgt. Brett Hightower, a Bowling Green veteran and advocate for the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program.
Additionally, PTSD and other mental disorders have recently begun to be recognized by officials, doctors and the public as legitimate war wounds. In fact, the military is considering diagnosing veterans with post-traumatic stress “injury” instead of “disorder,” Hightower said.
“There has historically been a stigma associated with (PTSD), but there shouldn’t be,” he said. “You’re in an environment where you’re shot at. It’s not a disorder to have issues with that. You probably would have a disorder if you didn’t.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety illness that generally occurs after witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts. It can ruin people’s lives and lead to drug abuse, depression and eating disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic. Recently, a string of veteran suicides and violent behavior has been linked to PTSD.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 6,500 veterans commit suicide each year. That’s more than the number of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Still, many veterans are too ashamed to seek mental health help. For people who have watched friends die, lose limbs and endure other physical wounds, it can be difficult to initially seek help for mental wounds.
The Bowling Green veteran who asked to remain anonymous returned home after seeing combat, and he tried to blend into society. He refused to seek medical care partly because he felt guilty and partly because he was angry. Ten years later, he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
“I still didn’t want to go to the VA and try to get any help. I just wanted to forget it,” he said. “I didn’t want anything to do with the government.”
And when veterans do decide to seek help, there is a limited amount of behavioral services, Hightower said. He knew one veteran who was living in a garage and battling mental problems, and he was told a professional could see him in three to four weeks, he said.
“The availability of those could probably be enhanced,” he said.
Still, other medical services, such as rehabilitation and primary care, are readily available to veterans who have benefits, officials say.
The nearest VA hospital is in Nashville, and the American Legion transports vans of veterans there every day. Also, The Bowling Green-Corpcare Outpatient Clinic offers primary medical assistance to veterans. About 2,600 veterans are signed up at the clinic, and that number is increasing, according to Abbi Wilson, clinic manager.
There’s a big “expense for these veterans to go to Tennessee for their health care. Having someone locally, it makes a big difference for them,” she said.
In addition to medical programs, there are a plethora of services that veterans are not even aware of, Hightower said, such as a property tax exemption for qualifying disabled veterans that could total up to $34,000.
Even services that have been established for years are unknown to some veterans. For example, American Legion Post 23 provides a variety of services that range from helping veterans obtain benefits to giving them rides to doctor’s appointments. But very few young veterans are joining the Bowling Green organization, members say.
“There’s so many things offered in the American Legion to help out veterans,” said Kim Bouchey, a Navy veteran and American Legion Post 23 member, “but we’re not getting the new, younger crowd in here.”
Roger Miller, commander of American Legion Post 23, has performed many tasks for veterans, from handing out Thanksgiving meals to paying their rent and utilities, he said.
“They can’t wait two weeks to have an electric bill paid,” he said.
About 15 volunteers from the American Legion visit eight nursing homes on a monthly basis. Over the past decade, they have visited nursing homes about 6,000 times, said Edwin Phelps, a veteran who runs that program.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1298 provides similar services and has added about 20 new veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VFW also holds holiday parties for veterans and is constantly checking on families of fighters who are overseas, former commander Joe Gentry said.
“We are a second family to them because either Momma or Daddy is gone overseas,” he said.
Solving the problem
Still, many veterans simply do not take advantage of the services offered to them, and that’s often due to guilt or pride, local veterans say.
“They don’t want help from anybody, and they need help,” said Donnie Brown, a service officer with American Legion Post 23. “That is a real problem. They think they’re taking charity, but they’re not.”
Hightower knows veterans who are living under bridges because they refuse to seek help. He worked with one woman who qualified for disability benefits but declined to take them and was living on $1,000 a month.
And a majority of civilians do not understand what veterans went through and the issues they face at home. About 84 percent of the public say they have little or no understanding of the military, according to the Pew Research Center.
Sitting inside an office at American Legion Post 23, about seven veterans agreed on a solution: reinstating the military draft. They agreed that young adults should have to serve a year or two in the military – not only would it teach them valuable skills and techniques, it would also foster respect, they said.
“If you serve in the military and see the other side, what it is to be a soldier, a Marine,” Hightower said. “It makes you have deeper respect.”
Still, research shows that 82 percent of veterans disagree and think the U.S. should not return to the draft, according to the Pew Research Center.
In addition to better educating the public and persuading veterans to accept help, organizations are also educating veterans on what help is out there and how to get it.
“The services are there,” Bouchey said. “It’s getting the veterans to follow the lines and connect the dots.”