BATTEN: Matthew Letterman came home from the Gulf War in 1991, but in some ways, he says, he never really left Iraq.
LETTERMAN: I left a piece of myself over there. You know, I would like to either go there and get it and bring it back, or be buried there with it.
BATTEN: When he returned to the US, Letterman knew something was wrong —
LETTERMAN: Bad dreams, flashbacks, night sweats, extreme jumpiness, hyper alertness.
BATTEN: But he couldn’t figure out what it was. Letterman has now been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as well as Gulf War syndrome, an illness caused by exposure to chemical toxins. But in 1991, Letterman says, it seemed as if no one wanted to tell him that.
LETTERMAN: It was a hey man, suck it up, move forward type thing… it’s all in your head. I went for over five years before I seen a counselor or a psychiatrist through the VA. And I can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out if I could’ve at least got the help that I needed in 1995.
BATTEN: Veterans’ care has come a long way since Letterman struggled to find a psychiatrist in 1995, but the system can still be improved. A new wave of American troops has been returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes bringing home their struggles with PTSD. As mainstream media coverage shifts away from these wars, veterans’ care may lose the attention it deserves.
BATTEN: Studies cited by Veterans Affairs, or the VA, indicate that 9% of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD. But the numbers are even higher for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and the present — one in every five veterans is battling PTSD or depression. But is the United States government doing enough to help?
Letterman says that in 1995, the answer was decidedly no.
LETTERMAN: Whenever you go and you’re looking for that help and they’re minimizing or they’re downplaying it or whatever like that, you’re gonna be mad. It’s been the most frustrating portion of my life.
BATTEN: Letterman says that when he attempted to apply for treatment and benefits, a Veterans Affairs administrator told him all his paperwork fell overboard in the Mediterranean Sea. He recalls that other veterans nicknamed the VA’s avoidance of the issue “the weasel mode.”
LETTERMAN: They are messing with your world as well. It’s really hard to be sick and then be able to fight all the bullcrap that’s involved.
BATTEN: Out of work and suffering from seizures, Letterman went to the local veterans’ hospital, asking them to admit him. Letterman recalls that they turned him away, saying he was not sick. He drove to another, bigger hospital, where he says that they turned him away for the same reason.
LETTERMAN: I’m a dead man walking. When I left that hospital down there, I drove back to my home, gathered up my old rucksack, went out, threw it in the cab of the tractor. I climbed in that thing and I decided I was going to Washington DC. I had nothing to lose.
BATTEN: So in July of 2009 Letterman drove his farm tractor from Mississippi to the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, where he says that he was admitted for treatment of Gulf War Syndrome and PTSD.
LETTERMAN: They had to carry me in because I couldn’t feel my feet or my legs, I couldn’t stand up. And Dr. Lee totally changed everything around in my life, and lo and behold it was helping. Understanding is what it finally took.
BATTEN: The good news is that the perception of shame surrounding PTSD, which made treatment so difficult for Letterman, is lessening. Patrick Bellon is a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the executive director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.
BELLON: Once a problem becomes of a certain size it’s hard to ignore it. No one would’ve dreamed that someone was going to go four or five times, but that’s what happened. And with that sort of stress the fractures start to show for everyone to see. And if you’re in a command position, at some point you realize that it’s your duty to recognize these things.
BATTEN: But change is not easy, and in many ways veterans are still not getting the care they need.
BELLON: They haven’t done enough to take care of veterans in crisis, prevent suicides. And there’s definitely not enough doctors, not enough counselors, social workers, people at that level who can maybe care for the veteran on a daily basis.
BATTEN: And, as Letterman points out, the problem of PTSD is not going anywhere. The history of PTSD is as old as the history of war, although it’s been known by other names, like “combat fatigue” and “shell shock.”
LETTERMAN: You can’t just switch the soldier off. He’s not a robot. There’s a bunch of us out there, and they’re sick, they’re scared, they’re looking for answers. They’ve lost so much.
BATTEN: Bellon says that the question of PTSD treatment is even more important now, during US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Only 4,000 US soldiers now remain in Iraq, and all American troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by 2014, but the effects of thirteen years of war could last a long time.
BELLON: My main concern right now is that as the war in Iraq ends, that people will be tempted to just sort of go, Okay, well, that’s over, I can stop supporting the troops now, or I can sort of pay attention to something else. These guys are still going to be coming back, still going to have the issues. This is going to be a struggle that’s going to go on for 20 years.
BATTEN: The VA estimates that as many as 5,000 veterans commit suicide every year, largely due to combat-related depression and stress. That’s about 17% of the suicides reported in the United States, even though veterans are less than 10% percent of the population.
As more American troops return from combat, the United States must be prepared to give veterans the aid and understanding they need to carry on in civilian life, now and in the foreseeable future.
For War News Radio, I’m Caroline Batten.