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Combat Stories and PTSD!

Iraq War veterans’ mental health has police on alert

Erin Emery
Denver Post

Sep 18, 2006

Colorado Springs, Colorado - After returning from Iraq, Jason Harvey, a combat soldier with the Fort Carson-based 2nd Brigade Combat Team, raced his car at speeds of more than 100 mph on Squirrel Tree Road and played paint ball to replicate battle situations.

“You have no idea what stress is until you’ve been in combat. When you’re in combat, the adrenaline rush, it becomes fluid, you’re used to it all the time. Then when you come back, it’s not there anymore and you have to find something to get back to how it was,” said Harvey, 23, who was diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder. “I know a lot of guys who started going sky diving or rock climbing; for me it was street racing.
… It might sound strange, but for me, when I was driving fast, it made me calm again.” Harvey was kicked out of the Army after he was found driving with a loaded gun on Fort Carson. He now lives in Wellington, Fla. He is among the untold number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have found themselves in what law enforcement officials increasingly realize are crisis situations - situations that often prove deadly.

While there is no hard data on whether high-risk or violent behavior is increasing, studies show the death rate for veterans returning from Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm was higher than for veterans who had not served in either theater.

“We expected it to happen, and it is now happening,” said Steve Robinson, director of government relations for Veterans for America, a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Colorado has seen the following in the past two months:

On July 17, after an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy stopped a pursuit that began when he saw two men on motorcycles popping wheelies and screaming up Academy Boulevard at speeds of more than 80 mph, Army Spec. Kelon Jones slammed his Kawasaki into a car. He flew 85 feet and later died. Jones, 20, had served in Iraq with the 43rd Area Support Group.

On Aug. 7, Robert Ziarnick, 25, was accused of shooting at Greenwood Village police and carjacking a 2005 Acura before fleeing to Cherry Creek State Park. Seven months earlier, Ziarnick used a knife to cut the words “kill me” into his abdomen. His wife told police he had served in Iraq and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two days later, in Colorado Springs, a police officer found Reisom Markose, 25, dead of an intentional overdose of bupropion, an antidepressant. Markose served in Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and recently had become a U.S. citizen.

More than 1.36 million Department of Defense personnel have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. Surveys show that 19 percent to 21 percent of troops who have returned from combat deployments meet criteria for PTSD, depression or anxiety, Army Col. Charles Hoge, chief of psychiatry and behavior services at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told a House subcommittee last year.

That war veterans may be in need of mental-health help is becoming increasingly clear to law enforcement.

In Massachusetts, Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating developed “Beyond the Yellow Ribbons: PTSD and Veterans,” a training video for first responders. The DVD has been provided to police, fire, probation and court personnel to help them understand when a veteran is having trouble readjusting from the combat zone to the streets and what resources are available in the community.

“This is going to become, in my mind, one of the major, major issues to deal with in this war: the aftermath,” Keating said.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization with more than 17,000 members, said that in the future, it may issue guidelines - or helpful hints - on how police officers can help veterans in crisis.

In Colorado Springs, police Sgt. Kerry Duran said he has advised officers to be aware that thousands of soldiers from Fort Carson have returned from war. Duran tells his officers to protect themselves at all costs but also to understand that the soldiers are trying to adjust.

“They can be verbally aggressive to officers,” Duran said. “Some of them are very angry.”

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, scientists noted that returning vets had a 9.4 percent higher death rate than other active- duty personnel from 1991 to 1993. The increase was caused mostly by accidents such as car wrecks, according to a Veterans Affairs study published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Vietnam veterans had a 7 percent higher death rate after discharge than veterans who did not serve in a theater. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found higher rates of motor vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides during the first five years after deployment to Vietnam.

So far this fiscal year, 156 sailors and Marines have died in off- duty accidents, said Cmdr. Edward Hobbs, a CDC spokesman.

“This has been one of the worst years in recent history,” Hobbs said.

The fatality rate among sailors and Marines in off-duty motor vehicle accidents is 25.6 per 100,000 personnel - the highest since the war started and nearing the highest rate in more than 14 years, when the rate was 25.74 per 100,000 personnel in 1992.

For the Army, the number of off-duty soldiers killed has risen since the war started, with 150 off-duty deaths reported in 2005, compared with 135 deaths so far this fiscal year, statistics show.

After Desert Storm, in a 1996 article in Injury Prevention magazine, Dr. Niki Bell proposed possible explanations for increases in injuries, including depression, PTSD and symptoms of other psychiatric conditions developed after the war. Traumas experienced during the war may result in the postwar adoption of “coping” behaviors that also increase injury risk (for example, heavy drinking) and others, she said.

“It struck me that there clearly could be a lot of ways in which injury fatalities, intentional and unintentional, could be related to the experiences that one has when you’ve been in a war situation,” Bell said. Testing her theories has been difficult, she said, because there is a lack of strong data.

In July 2005, Defense Department officials told a House subcommittee that military mental- health efforts include a yearly preventive assessment and pre- and post-deployment screenings. Also, mental-health teams are embedded with units, and military personnel have access to a confidential counseling and education service.

However, a Government Accountability Office report in May found that eight of 10 soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who showed signs of PTSD were not referred for further mental-health treatment.

Military research shows that 35 percent of Iraq war veterans accessed such services in the year after returning, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The high rate … highlights challenges in ensuring that there are adequate resources to meet the mental-health needs of returning veterans,” the Journal concluded.

Robinson, of Veterans of America, agreed.

“People are coming home, and their bodies may be in Fort Carson, Colo., but their adrenaline, their heart and their mind are still in Iraq. So they are in survival mode,” Robinson said. “They can’t just turn their adrenaline off after 365 days of surviving.”




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