After Jorge Gonzalez returned home to Washington from a 15-month tour in Iraq, he attempted to kill himself. Gonzalez became distant with his wife and kids at times, who noticed he was not the same person after his deployment.
People saw I drank more, became depressed,” Gonzalez, 32, said. “ … I didn’t want to be in large crowds because I hated people.”
Symptoms of avoidance and self-destructive behavior after living in a war zone are common signs of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the Mayo Clinic. Violence – a rare reaction that has recently garnered media attention – has been seen as events in North Carolina and Washington have shed light on the mental states of returning veterans.
On Monday, 45-year-old active duty soldier William Miller Jr., who had spent time in Afghanistan, was shot to death by troopers in North Carolina after he fired a weapon at them. Sources say Miller had emotional issues related to his wartime deployment but did not have a PTSD diagnosis. And on January 1 a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran was suspected in the shooting and death of a Washington state park ranger before being found dead in the park. Reports suggested that the alleged shooter, Benjamin Colton Barnes, struggled with PTSD and depression.
But Gonzalez, who served with the Army in Iraq from June 2006 to September 2007, was not diagnosed with PTSD. Instead, he received medication to treat an anxiety disorder. Gonzalez calls this a common military practice that is used as a cost-cutting measure.
Most of (the soldiers) now get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder of some form, which obviously saves the military money when they go to their veterans disability claims,” Gonzalez said.
“They treat it less, or don’t treat it at all. Or they just – like they did with me – put you on medication.”
Gonzalez explained that treating an anxiety disorder takes less time and fewer resources from the government, which determines the diagnosis after a short electronic questionnaire done on a computer. Gonzalez says he took the survey five or six days after his return and has even heard the military suggesting soldiers use an iPhone application that provides a screening, something he says is unreliable.
“These are things that the military is coming up with that they think work,” Gonzalez said.
Beating the system
Charles Figley, distinguished professor and chair in disaster mental health at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, says PTSD is over-diagnosed and acts as a catch-all. Figley is part of a research program that has been working on screening veterans for mental health issues resulting from military conflict since 2003. He suggests that while there certainly are veterans that return with PTSD, there are far more that return with different mental health symptoms, oftentimes an anxiety disorder.
Gonzalez estimated that half of the soldiers he encountered were suffering from a mental health issue as a result of time spent in Iraq. Figley says that number could be closer to 80 percent.
“We’ve gotten better and better at doing this – being able to determine what are the other indicators of PTSD that may not be asked,” Figley said. “At the very least we’re able to eliminate a diagnosis and then focus on other things. There could be other anxiety disorders.”
Figley says more work needs to be done in screening both because the short questionnaire only identifies “major symptom profiles” and that veterans taking the test have found ways to get around it.
“(Soldiers) have learned a long time ago how to lie, or how to beat the system, if you will,” Figley added.
Figley explained that the motivation to lie on a mental health screening differs for all involved. The most common reasons for lying include embarrassment, shame and the concern of letting their unit down because they are no longer able to do their job.
Figley also said there is an underlying “tension between what these men and women need to do among their band of brothers, if you will, and what they need to do within their own particular family.”
A ‘tsunami’ of violence
The National Center for PTSD estimates that PTSD occurs in 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This group has been thrust to the limelight for violent actions both against themselves and others.
Figley worries about violence from returning war veterans and says that the ending of one war will create an influx of violent events in the United States by returning war veterans..
“There is a tsunami heading our way, particularly when one of the wars is over and there is a downsize in the military, that’s when you’re going to see a lot problems emerging,” Figley said.
Gonzalez said you could see more violence among veterans returning, but that PTSD should not be the sole reason for blame. Gonzalez never committed a violent act, although he thought about it during his suicide attempt. In fact, he is now on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“PTSD is not an excuse for shooting anybody,” Gonzalez said. “The person could have been a scumbag before he was deployed.”
More should be done
Gonzalez and Figley both agree that more needs to be done to prevent, screen and treat not only post-traumatic stress disorder, but all mental health issues that arise as a result of military deployments.
It’s just irresponsible of the federal government to not be doing more in that it (sic) should be more effective,” Figley said. “We’ve come a long way and we’re better than we used to be, but it’s not enough.”
“Definitely (the government) could do more,” Gonzalez said. “For one thing the government could be funding the VA more instead of cutting funding.”
Gonzalez also said media rarely report on the positive impacts soldiers make upon their return and focus on the violent outbursts and negative impacts.
“Instead of saying soldiers need to be funded, media focus on all the bad things,” he said.
Figley said while funding is an issue, having enough properly trained people to help with soldiers is the biggest obstacle in finding them help.
“There’s not enough people trained in understanding assessing and managing PTSD in the military, and they’ll be the first to tell you that,” he said.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is “the signature wound of 21st century combat.” – Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould
Feature photo | Sgt. Jacob Hayes, 25, of Welcome Md., of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Platoon Apache Company of 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Combat Brigade 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., smokes at Combat Outpost Tangi in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. David Goldman | AP