The Death Toll At Home

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THE PLANK MAY 19, 2008

The Death Toll At Home

In the wake of a recent, alarming RAND study reporting that one in five returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experiences post traumatic stress disorder, Slate.com has posted an unsavory e-mail from Norma Perez, head of the Olin E. Teague Veterans' Center in Texas, attempting to dissuade medical workers from diagnosing the "disability-qualifying" disorder which entitles veterans to an "improved pension." Perez wrote that due to the increase in "compensation-seeking veterans," social workers and psychologists should forgo PTSD diagnoses in favor of the less-serious "adjustment disorder." When the email was leaked to VoteVets.org (and met with inevitable outrage and calls for repudiation) Perez changed her tune and has become, Slate reports, "extremely apologetic."

Her (token, scripted) apology is appropriate--the repercussions of misdiagnosing PTSD, though thrifty, are often tragic.

As Sarah Stillman reports in a great piece on TNR.com today, the broader failure of the Pentagon to provide adequate care for injured, traumatized soldiers has led to a disturbing prevalence of suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans--a figure that, according to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, "could trump the combat deaths" for U.S. soldiers. Stillman (a former Iraq correspondent and volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center) uses her intimate knowledge of the issue to explain both the science and the politics behind this troubling phenomenon:

In 2006, Congress cut funding for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a key facility devoted to treating and understanding war-related brain traumas. "Honestly, they would have loved to have funded it," explained spokeswoman Jenny Manley of the Senate Appropriations Committee, "but there were just so many priorities." More recently, authorities from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) attempted a seedy cover-up of soldiers' astronomical suicide rates. In a February email boldly titled "Shh!", Dr. Ira Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer at the VA, told colleagues, "Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see.... Is this something we should address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"

As the presidential candidates debate our Iraq policy, Stillman's piece is a sobering reminder that "the human consequences of our continued presence there are much greater than just those who die on the battlefield."

--Bess Kalb

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