The Iraq War Comes Home

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HOMECOMING: Members of the Illinois National Guard return to their homes after service in Iraq

The Iraq war is coming home, with more than one of every four returning vets complaining of mental or physical wounds caused by the conflict. The first time the U.S. went to war with Iraq, in 1991, ground combat lasted precisely 100 hours, but its impact on the U.S. troops who waged it, including physical and mental scars, was ignored and belittled by the Pentagon hierarchy for years. This time, with the war going much worse for U.S. forces, the Pentagon is paying much closer attention to the invisible wounds combat is leaving on soldiers.

According to an accounting by the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, nearly 1,700 troops returning from the war zone this year said they have thought of harming themselves or felt they would be better off dead (250 said they had such thoughts "a lot"). About 20,000 suffer from nightmares and other flashbacks. More than 3,700 said they feared they might hurt or "lose control" with another person. Another disturbing finding: Troops serving in Iraq are more than twice as likely to see their comrades—or civilians—killed or wounded than they are to see enemy dead or injured. And the trend is getting worse: Soldiers reported feeling more fear this year and last year while in Iraq, compared to those GIs who served in the initial invasion force in 2003. Twice as many serving in 2004-05 fired their weapons in combat compared to the 2003 soldiers.

"To the troops who were there, these numbers are not at all surprising," says Paul Rieckoff, who served as an Army Reserve lieutenant in the second Iraq war and now heads Operation Truth, a New York-based advocacy group for veterans. He says he hopes the numbers convince Congress of the need to increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It's also important to note that the situation is getting worse for many troops, not better, even though the White House is trying to convince us otherwise."

Instead of letting ailments like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Gulf War Syndrome slowly bubble up at Department of Veterans' Affairs hospitals, the Army is screening soldiers before and after they serve in combat, and then a follow-up returning screening several months after they come home. They are finding that more than one in four—28 percent—are limping home with psychological or physical woes, ranging from unhealed war wounds to thoughts of suicide. Those roughly 150,000 vets eclipse the official war tally of 1,971 killed and 15,220 wounded through Tuesday.

The comprehensive survey of deployed troops began in 1997, following the lack of good data on soldiers' well-being in the first Gulf War. Thousands of soldiers in the 1990-91 conflict complained of a wide range of physical and mental ailments that came to be called Gulf War Syndrome, and for which a definitive cause has never been found. A government panel concluded a year ago that roughly one in seven veterans of the first Gulf War suffered war-related medical problems, about half the total reporting such problems in the current conflict.

William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant defense secretary for health affairs, has said the Pentagon has taken steps to prevent a recurrence of Gulf War Syndrome. Many experts believes its myriad of symptoms— pain, fatigue, diarrhea and cognitive impairment, among others—is linked to the toxic chemical soup, including Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of nerve agents destroyed by U.S. forces, that contaminated the battlefield in the 1990-91 conflict. "We've done quite a lot more to set up preventive health systems—monitoring of soil, water, air and just ongoing monitoring of the environment to ensure as best we can that people avoid things, either infectious agent or toxins or any kind of exposures that might cause disease," he said early in 2004. But he added that such steps would not eliminate the stress of combat. "Being in these environments and fighting this kind of war is clearly going to be stressful for some people."