Protests nationwide have been shining a spotlight on America’s wealthiest 1 percent, but state veterans’ affairs officials say a different 1 percent — the population of Americans who have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — are the ones who need the attention.
President Obama’s June announcement that he is withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan before 2014 means that thousands of veterans will be coming home in the next couple of years, and this means that a fresh wave of veterans will require medical, psychological or social attention, said Dr. Ismene Petrakis, the Chief of Psychiatry Service for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. Those returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may very well feel that their experience isolates them from others, he said.
“You can imagine where that might be difficult to relate to someone when your life experience in the last year was very different than theirs,” Petrakis said. “You may feel a kinship with people that you served with rather than with friends or family members that don’t know what you’ve experienced.”
About 17,000 Connecticut residents have been deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. These are some of the nearly 1 in 8 Connecticut citizens who have served in the military; a total of about 277,000 veterans live in the state. Nationally, less than 1 percent of America’s total population, or 2.3 million veterans, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
Jim Tackett, director of Veterans Services for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), said that when veterans fail to receive necessary medical and psychological attention as soon as possible, they can face homelessness, joblessness, substance abuse problems, domestic violence and a host of other issues.
“We have a deeper appreciation of knowing that no one serves and doesn’t change,” he said. “Some find their new normal, but some come home and get stuck.”
Tackett said the constant “fight or flight” response that service members may face every day can detach them from normal civilian life. He said this can foster, at the very least, a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, he said, as many as 15 percent to 20 percent of returning service members have been diagnosed with full-blown PTSD.
VA mental health caseloads are climbing, as reported in a recent story on C-HIT.org, the website of the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. C-HIT referred to a report released by the federal Government Accountability Office showing that 7,600 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Connecticut received VA care between Oct. 1, 2010, and Oct. 1, 2011. About 280 of those veterans received mental health care during the year. Data spanning the 10 years leading up to March 2011 show that nearly 2,200 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Connecticut were treated at veterans centers for PTSD symptoms.
The Military Support Program (MSP), created by the General Assembly in 2006, provides counseling to veterans through 425 licensed clinicians, Tackett said. Veterans can also call a 24/7 call center managed by Advanced Behavioral Health Inc. in Middletown, and immediately receive names and numbers for three clinicians in their area.
Tackett said the MSP also employs 24 specialized clinicians who work with National Guard units, giving the clinicians a “physical presence” that better helps to counsel combat veterans.
“It’s about engaging returning veterans now, as soon as possible,” Tackett said.
A different kind of military experience
Changing circumstances make current military life a different experience than it was 40 or 50 years ago.
The war doesn’t weigh on the minds of civilians every day, said state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz. “It’s not a national movement, so in many respects, it’s a select group,” she said.
Voluntary enlistment, multiple deployments and the military’s changing demographics account for a different experience than that had by veterans of the Vietnam or Korean wars, Schwartz said.
“It’s a volunteer force,” she said. “The people who are serving chose this path. The ones who are serving stepped forward, no one plucked them up from college to serve. It’s more contained within the military community.”
Schwartz noted that between 60 percent and 85 percent of people serving in the military have families, and when parents are deployed, family roles change, which can make homecoming more difficult.
IAVA, the national Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group, pointed out further that a new generation of returning female veterans faces unique challenges that can include slower career progression, inadequate military health care and high rates of sexual assault and harassment.
Returning veterans of the more recent wars also face unique economic and financial circumstances.
Petrakis said frequent media coverage of PTSD may perpetuate a stigma that all returning veterans bring irreparable psychological baggage home with them. The stigma can be just one more difficult challenge in an economy where jobs are scarce.
Terence Brennan, director of the Office for Veterans’ Workforce Development at the state Department of Labor, helps find jobs for returning veterans. His office locates employment training, education and counseling for veterans trying to re-enter the civilian work force. He said that he requires that those helping returning vets be veterans themselves, which helps to build trust.
“Some of the folks are coming home, and the company they used to work for is gone,” he said.
Despite a lack of available jobs, he said he thinks veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are at some advantage.
“The equipment they use and everything they use is much more advanced than it was 30 years ago,” Brennan said. “They’re receiving a lot more training (in the military) and better training.”
He said for many, their skills only need tweaking. For example, a military electrician can transition easily into a civilian electrician’s job with the right training.
“For every military occupation, there’s a mirrored civilian occupation, as well,” Brennan said. “It’s about getting them the classroom training and getting them the certificate, but it still depends on how many jobs are out there.”
He said his office deals directly with employers and reinforces the fact to them that hiring a veteran doesn’t mean hiring someone with baggage. Petrakis echoed the sentiment.
“People need to get the message that just because you’re a veteran, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad employee or you’re going to have mental illness or substance abuse disorders,” Petrakis said. “I think that could go a long way to alleviating stigma.”
For more information about the Connecticut State Military Support Program (MSP), visit the DMHAS Veterans Services website. To schedule an appointment with an MSP clinician, call 860-418-6679.