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Help for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans

Every day, military veterans return from the intense surroundings of warfare. And some of those returning veterans come home with unique mental health challenges: a topic of discussion between NIMH Director Dr. Thomas Insel and Sergeant Todd Bowers of the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

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Announcer: Proudly, they carry the flag and march in parades — these veterans of wars fought half a world away. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America supports all service members, but in particular, those veterans who have come home to challenges as straightforward as finding work in civilian life or as complex as the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Sergeant Todd Bowers is Deputy Executive Director for IAVA. Sergeant Bowers sat down with National Institute of Mental Health Director Doctor Thomas Insel to talk about struggles faced by many of his fellow veterans…

Sergeant Todd Bowers: Well, IAVA is, as you mentioned, is the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America . And in 2005, a lot of service members were coming back and really feeling that civil-military divide that was existing. So we started the organization, where our overall goal is to help families of service members, service members and themselves before, during and after war. To sum it up — to better the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.

Dr. Thomas Insel: So tell us about the gaps as you know them. Where do you think the attention needs to go?

Sergeant Todd Bowers: Right now, one of our primary focuses is employment. Employment is something that leads to a myriad of multiple issues, everything from mental health difficulties to difficulties with your family. And we’re seeing that with a dwindling economy and service members coming back from their sixth, seventh, sometimes eighth deployments. It’s very hard for them to get back in to society. So we start to look at what are the pieces that are missing out of that. Well, it comes from the civilian side of the house not really understanding the skill set that service members bring back.

Dr. Thomas Insel: Todd, do we have numbers for what unemployment looks like in veterans relative to people who are not coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Sergeant Todd Bowers: As of last month, over 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are currently unemployed. Now that does not include those in school. That is strictly folks that do not have jobs that are currently seeking employment. Those are very high numbers, and it’s very disturbing because we’re starting to see those continue to go up and up and up.

Never before have we asked so few to do so much. We’re now engaged in the single longest war that we’ve ever been engaged in. We have less than two point… we just broke over 2.2 million people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you compare that to what World War II was and what Vietnam was, it’s a very small demo that we’re focusing on — but constant service — and these are reservists-national guardsmen, active-duty service members going for multiple deployments.

And we don’t know what that means. In the past, we haven’t had to deal with a service member that’s deployed eight times and what impact that has on their family and their surroundings as a whole.

Dr. Thomas Insel: So from your perspective, what are the mental health issues that you think are the most salient for people coming back from either Iraq or Afghanistan? What do you see as being the issues that need the most attention?

Sergeant Todd Bowers: Well, I can focus specifically on myself since I’ve been home. Here I am a veterans advocate — always focused on taking care of those to my left and my right, my fellow service members and veterans as a whole — I still have yet to walk through the door to get myself treatment. And there is always that blockade because I know I want to continue to serve. I may deploy again in the next couple of years. And there’s that fear, that stigma that still remains.

We’re getting past it, but it’s taken some time to be able to get that military leadership to step up and say: Look, there’s nothing wrong with you. If you were able to witness these things and not come out a different person, then there is something wrong with you. Showing that these are really positive steps that we can go forward by having that leadership that says: Hey, I went and got treatment and I’m ok.

I always discuss it to my Marines where I say: Look, when I got shot, what did I do? I put a bandage on it, I got the wound treated and I was able to go back into the fight. Same thing occurs with mental health injuries. We’ve got to get to that point where we know that mental health injuries are just as rough as the physical injuries that you see in combat. The sort of mechanics of it all have changed for these conflicts.

With that said, we have made great strides in understanding what some of the injuries are. I remember my father used to always tell me a story about where he grew up in Fortuna, California. There was a World War II veteran who was the sole survivor of a submarine that was sunk. He somehow bobbed up to the surface, and obviously had some intense mental health issues. And back then they dealt with it by — they made a leather collar and they kept him chained to the front porch. And he used to tell me how he would drive — ride by on his bicycle and he would see this gentleman out there.

We know that’s not the way to deal with these injuries anymore. We know that mental health injuries are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. And that is the best way that we can move forward with them.

So, the previous generations, we’ve been very fortunate to learn from what they’ve gone through and try and manifest that into some really positive changes for this new generation.