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Iraq Is Such a House of Trauma, It Doesn't Take Much to Get PTSD

Our idea of what used to be called "shell shock" tends to be limited to terrible battles, not just the daily stress of living in a war zone or surviving a couple of close calls.

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For commiseration, I phoned a friend who had spent a year in Iraq with the State Department. When I had seen him in the Green Zone back in 2007, he had already aged frighteningly, his hair newly flecked with gray. He, too, was watching fireworks, and he, too, was experiencing the same sense of panic. Only he was on an open boat in the middle of a lake with nowhere to hide.


Last month was the 10th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq and already that war is fading out of memory, replaced by the latest rumblings of violence with North Korea and continued saber rattling over Syria and Iran. People who promote new wars have a tendency to give only a cursory nod to the costs of war itself. We hear the occasional mention of Iraqi civilian deaths (usually citing some preposterous lowball estimate as if it were established  fact) or a nod to the way a whole bunch of soldiers got PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how often do we hear real consideration of the human costs of war, or even much in the way of the long-term financial and economic costs of treating thousands and thousands of people harmed by our wars?

Those costs are very real. The Veterans Administration reports that it has diagnosed  247,243 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, or 30% of its patients from those two wars. That doesn't even touch on the huge number of veterans who haven't sought care yet, or are waiting for an evaluation, or suffer some symptoms but aren't quite diagnosable. Young veterans of the wars are unemployed at almost  twice the rate of their peers.  Suicides now outpace combat deaths as the Afghan War slows down.

An understaffed VA and the military are, for their part, at least trying to address the surge of PTSD among the troops, however  ineptly. (The average wait time for the backlog of almost  one million compensation claims is almost a year and appeals on the  46% of rejected claims take  far longer). But what about civilian employees?  As of 2007, the American Foreign Service Association estimated that approximately  40% of State Department diplomats who served in combat zones suffered some symptoms of PTSD.

And what about contractors? I know I wasn't alone, but there isn't much information out there. One small study of in-country contract employees at the major Pentagon contractor DynCorp found that  24% showed signs of PTSD or depression upon returning home. This is no small issue: there have been  more contractors than troops in Afghanistan for much of that war.

And what about the people who actually live in the war-torn country, who don't get to escape the war and go back to a peaceful home at the end of a deployment?  Civilians are the great victims of modern war. In Afghanistan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that  42% of Afghans suffered from PTSD and 68% showed signs of major depression -- and that, mind you, was back in 2002.  The country's health minister estimated in 2010 that  60% of Afghans suffer from mental-health problems. Beyond prayer, that country has close to  zero services to help its people. Washington’s “nation-builders” tend to forget about basic things like this.

These are not just short-term human costs that will fade away as my PTSD symptoms did. I was a lucky one, briefly in theater and mostly sheltered. For some, the trauma lingers for decades. Today, an American veteran of any war takes his or her own life  every 65 minutes. Veterans account for 1% of the overall population but  22.2% of the nation's suicides, and the majority of those happen after age 50.  In other words, as with the  debt we used to fund the wars, we will pay -- and shirk -- these costs for many years to come.

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