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The Ravages of War Related PTSD Spread to Partners and Children of US Soldiers

The heartbreaking story of a family's secondary trauma.

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Danna Hughes set out to treat Vietnam vets and their families. But men who served in World War II show up in her office, and just cry and cry.

It may take years for the verdict to come in on whether secondary trauma will be officially acknowledged as its own unique form of hell. Meanwhile, Hofstra professor Motta says, while "a simple Google search [of the research] would tell you that the children of traumatized people have problems, the VA doesn't wanna spend the money. Even with veterans, they try to say, 'Well, you really had a preexisting condition.' It would cost millions upon millions to treat the people affected. They just don't want to foot the bill."

Then again, the VA already is footing some  $600 millionworth of PTSD treatment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan ** in 2013, via hundreds of medical centers and smaller outpatient clinics, plus  232 vet centers that offer general readjustment services. Caleb alone, just in disability checks, not even including any of his treatment or his numerous prescriptions, will cost the VA $1.7 million if he lives until he's 80.

Charles Marmar, a New York University professor who was on the team of the  National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, the most comprehensive study of combat stress ever conducted, points out that you really have to spend the money to treat PTSD, since the costs of not treating it are so much higher. "Personal tragedy, suicide, depression, alcohol and drug use, reliving terror," he rattles off as consequences. "Stress-related health problems—cardiovascular, immunologic. Heart attacks, stroke, and even dementia. Residential rehab programs, and motor vehicle accidents because people with PTSD self-medicate and crash cars; the cost of domestic violence; the cost of children and grandchildren of combat vets witnessing domestic violence. The treatment and compensation disability programs have cost billions. And the costs of the untreated are probably in the tens of billions. They're enormous." Police time, court costs, prison time for sick vets who came home to commit soldier-style shoot-'em-ups or plain desperate crimes. Lost wages. Nonprofit assistance, outreach, social services. There are an estimated  100,000 homeless vets on the street on any given night.

Experts say it's nearly impossible to calculate what treating PTSD from Vietnam has and will cost American taxpayers, so vast are its impacts. There were  2.4 million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and while no one is sure what PTSD among them will ultimately cost us, either, everyone agrees on one thing: If it's not effectively treated, it won't go away. When Caleb checked into his VA inpatient therapy in 2010, more than two-thirds of his fellow patients were veterans of Vietnam.

Vietnam vets still make up the bulk of Danna's clients—though she is assisting traumatized men who served in World War II, in the early years of which half the medical disability discharges were psychiatric, and some of those men still show up at Danna's office and cry, and cry, and cry. Many people at her fundraiser are saying that she saved their lives, kept them from killing themselves, kept them off the streets—or out of the woods, as it were, where she sometimes found vets living on earth floors under cardboard boxes.

"I don't just get to see the bad stuff," Danna says. "I get to see the good stuff too."

By way of example, she introduces me to Steve Holt ***and Charlene Payton Holt. Steve served in Vietnam, fought in the Tet Offensive. The chaplain assured him that he shouldn't feel bad about killing gooks, but the chaplain was paid by the Army, and who took moral advice from a chaplain carrying a .38? Back at home, Steve drank wildly. He waged war with his wife, attempted to work odd jobs where he had as little contact with humans as possible. But then he got divorced, and then he got with Charlene in 2001, and then he got in a big fight with Charlene and pulled the rifles out and sent her fleeing into the night, through the woods to the closest neighbor's house a mile away. But then he got inpatient psychiatric treatment in Seattle, several times, and found Jesus, and only ever has a beer or two, and now you have never seen two people so in love in any double-wide in the United States.

 
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