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The second battle

Cover story sidebar | For many soldiers returning from Iraq, coming home to 'normal' becomes a war on terror of a different sort. The military and the church are finding ways to help

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

It was only 5:30 a.m. in Iraq, but already Sergeant Jared Shumate lay on the ground, clutching his gear in fear. As he huddled in the darkness, he could hear hissing sounds followed by louder booms. Each explosion sounded closer. Once, he felt the ground shake. Would a rocket come through his window? he wondered. Where would the next mortar hit?

Mr. Shumate didn't die that morning in 2004, but his voice grows softer and he glances down when he remembers how close those rockets were-two Iraqi men were killed in the house just across the street from him.

Today, Mr. Shumate is a recently returned soldier who must fight a different battle: one against his mind. Troops arriving home may experience flashbacks, isolation from others, depression, and anger. In response, many organizations are offering programs to help soldiers readjust to civilian life. Often, readjustment means soldiers must learn to cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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In 2004, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that one in six soldiers returning from Iraq showed signs of PTSD, major depression, or severe anxiety. Nearly 50 soldiers have committed suicide or murder after arriving home from Iraq.

"Conflict equals stress," explained Jaime Cavazos, public affairs supervisor for the U.S. Army Medical Command. Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, told WORLD that the Iraq war presents "unique" stressors, such as "not knowing who is friend and who is enemy, insurgency, constantly feeling vulnerable, suicide bombs, and exposure to casualties."

Although Mr. Cavazos said soldiers are "conditioned mentally" to expect such trauma and are required to participate in a one- to two-week post-deployment health assessment, many don't experience symptoms of a mental disorder until weeks and even years later. That's why, beginning this year, soldiers also attend a post-deployment health reassessment 90-120 days after returning from combat.

For Mr. Shumate, life after combat involved "spouts" of depression. "You return from an environment of such threat and critical demand and suddenly you have no purpose," he said. "Coming back is not what you expected, not what you think it will be. You relax and memories of everything come back." Mr. Shumate tried to return to "normal" life by re-enrolling at Pensacola Christian College, but he often found it hard to concentrate while in class: "I was used to the earth shaking from exploding mortar shells. My thoughts kept wandering and it was hard to focus."

Twenty-nine-year-old Marcus King, who was also a sergeant in Iraq, can relate. After returning to the United States in 2003, Mr. King suffered from recurring flashbacks and nightmares. He would relive the first time his Humvee hit a roadside bomb: "It was just chaos. . . . You check yourself to make sure you're still breathing, but when you're that close [to an explosion] you can't really hear anything." Mr. King also experienced bouts of uncontrollable anger. Once, he even felt an unexplainable urge to hit his 2-year-old son with a baseball bat. This incident prompted him to seek help from his chaplain, and an army doctor later diagnosed him with PTSD.

But many returning soldiers don't look for help because they're embarrassed or afraid of being stigmatized. In 2004, the New England Journal of Medicine found that only 23 percent to 40 percent of soldiers with symptoms of a mental disorder had sought health care. The army responded by launching programs to raise awareness of mental health issues, but Mr. Cavazos recognizes that ultimately, "soldiers must open up and talk about issues." Some private organizations are trying to provide a less-threatening environment for soldiers who would otherwise hesitate to seek help.

Colonel Ritchie believes private organizations also serve a vital role in ministering to soldiers who don't live on or near military bases. Hearts Toward Home, founded by Bridget Cantrell, reaches soldiers through a variety of channels. A PTSD specialist with the Washington Department of Veteran's Affairs, Dr. Cantrell not only travels across the country giving seminars to troops, but she also educates family members on adjustment problems, provides individual, group, and couple therapy, and works with children of returning veterans. Recently, she's co-authored a book titled Down Range to Iraq and Back.

"You have to support the soldier going over and coming home," said Dr. Cantrell. "Vietnam veterans had no one to turn to, so they resorted to substance abuse-either alcohol or over-the-counter drugs." Many Vietnam veterans found that even self-medication didn't help. While government records show 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam, they showed that during the first five years after discharge, deaths from suicide were 1.7 times more likely among Vietnam veterans than non-Vietnam veterans.


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