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For Vets, Life Away From War Can Be a Battle

Concerns about post-traumatic stress and brain injuries can cloud homecoming.

In the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan the conflicts for U.S. military personnel took place over territory: crossroads, mountain passes, neighborhoods.

At times, the enemy was indistinguishable from civilians. Many times soldiers were killed or wounded by roadside bombs—improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.  Their use as a weapon raised the levels  of danger and terror as troops moved through the hostile landscape.

Sometimes those terrors fade, and the readjustment to civilian life proceeds smoothly. When it does not, the consequences can be broken families or broken lives.

Back from deployment, those warriors can face conflicts over who takes out the trash, who pays the bills, or more basically, who is in charge of the household, social work professionals said. And those seemingly simple conflicts can be debilitating.

Sylvia Lippe, a social worker with Family Service of Morris County, which for two years has been counseling soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said families of returning veterans find that the roles within the family need to be adjusted.

“If Dad was deployed, then Mom stayed behind and did all the chores, made all the decisions,” Lippe said. “Who takes out the trash can become a issue. Roles change. Roles need to be adjusted.”

This week, Patch takes a look at the lives of Morris County's service members and veterans, for our special report, Morris and the Military.

The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a division of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, said the home-based conflicts are among the “common stress reactions” that occur during deployment to a war zone and after.

Some of these reactions are well-understood: Fear for the loved one’s safety, even panic; sadness, loneliness; a sense of being overwhelmed; concern over being needed and loved, for example.

But, the national center advises that if the “honeymoon” period of adjustment does not include resolution of some of the common conflicts, it could be a sign that more serious issues are at play, included mental illness, post-traumatic-stress disorder or the lingering effects of a brain injury.

Failure to seek help for those more serious conditions can lead to the disintegration  of the family, financial breakdowns, violence, homelessness or even death, experts said.

The effect of those changes can be multiplied, Lippe said, when, as has been the case for many New Jersey soldiers, there's been more than one deployment.

Experts say these adjustments are a normal part of the deployment of soldiers to war, and their return from battle, and have been a part of all wars.

“Readjustment is a key issue,” Lippe said. “It can show up in charges of driving while intoxicated, substance abuse and it can influence jobs, housing and other key areas of life.”

These adjustment issues have become subjects of intense study in part because of the different nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Locally, nonprofit agencies are reaching out to veterans and their families with programs that provide counseling, financial support, job-related help including transportation and day care support and housing assistance, including transitional housing.

The VA is conducting a 10-year national health study of 60,000 veterans who served between October 2001 and June 2008, including 30,000 who served in the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 30,000 others who served  elsewhere  during the period.

The VA will include all branches of the U.S. military, including National Guard  and Reserves, and 20 percent  of the study group will be women.

Eleven percent of  Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are  women.

Better body armor and equipment and  differing military tactics have helped reduce the number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat dramatically compared to past wars, but other types of wounds are prominent.

In August, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that in the past decade of the second Gulf War, 6,300 U.S. soldiers died in the war zone, and 33,000 were wounded.

In the 10 years of war in Vietnam, 58,000 Americans were killed. In the five years of World War II, 291,587 service members died, and 671,546 were wounded.

In 2009, the Pentagon reported that 360,000 U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan said they had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

The 100,000 Homes Campaign survey of 23,000 persons in 102 cities found that 27 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan  veterans reported traumatic brain injuries, compared to 19 percent of other veterans interviewed, and 46 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans reported some form of mental health treatment, compared to 41 percent for other veterans.

In 2010, 20.2 million men and 1.8 million women in the civilian non-institutional population ages 18 and over were veterans, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

In July 2010, about 2.8 million veterans, or 13 percent of the total, reported having a service-connected disability, the  bureau said.

Among veterans who served in Gulf War era II, since 2001, about one in four, or 530,000, reported having a service-connected disability, and 19 percent, 548,000, of veterans who served during Gulf War era I reported a service-connected disability.

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study,  conducted by the U.S. government in 1983 to better understand the psychological effect of being in the Vietnam War, reported that approximately 15 percent of men and 9 percent of women were found to have PTSD at the time of the study. Approximately 30 percent of men and  percent  of women had PTSD at some point in their life following Vietnam.

The study concluded there were about 479,000 cases of PTSD and 1 million lifetime PTSD cases as a result of the Vietnam War.

Lippe, of Family Service, said that her agency  is seeing more  Vietnam-era veterans seeking counseling.

“They are reaching retirement age, the children are gone and they are ending jobs,” she said. “They are reliving what happened to them. Because of the reaction when they came home, they didn’t talk. They were not welcomed back.”

Jack McFadden, another Family Service counselor, said for two years since Family Service began the service with the support of the Front Line Fund, he has been speaking with veterans and their families, members of American Legions and Veterans of Foreign Wars groups seeking those who need help.

“I spoke to families, grandmothers and children, and it was successful,” he said. “Grandmothers would call to express their worry that they had for their sons and grandsons.”

McFadden said  speaking to the veterans group and seniors citizens was fruitful as a way to identify newer veterans who might be in  trouble.

“They know everyone, and they were there themselves,” he said. “We were especially concerned about post traumatic stress. Someone in that condition tends to be isolated, but  on the other hand, they feel comfortable around  other vets.”

It is a community issue, he said: “Beware of a veteran becoming isolated.”

Over the past two years, McFadden said, “again and again a wife would say this key phrase: ‘I don’t know him anymore.’  They are outside the military envelope. Forty years ago when they came home there were jobs, but now they don’t identify with society.”

McFadden said they need time to readjust, to relearn their family ways, to use Lippe’s description, to learn who takes out the trash.

Time to shed the sounds and sights of war, and to replace them with the sounds and sights  of regular life; to reconnect with those parts of themselves that were shut away during combat, stored in corners of their hearts and minds, seemingly frozen for protection.

Now home, he said, the veterans need time to relocate those parts of their lives.

“They need time,” he said, “to thaw.”

Elayne Lipkin December 05, 2011 at 04:20 PM
JVS of Metrowest has a job reentry program, funded by the Kessler Institute, for veterans who have disabilities. This program aims to help veterans successfully return to civilian employment. Program componenets include vocational assessment, job placement assistance and other employment related services. For further information, or to make referrals, contact Rebecca Shulman, 973-674-6330 EXT.253.

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