Iraq War May Add Stress for Past Vets

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

More than 30 years after their war ended, thousands of Vietnam veterans are seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, and experts say one reason appears to be harrowing images of combat in Iraq.

Figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that PTSD disability-compensation cases have nearly doubled since 2000, to an all-time high of more than 260,000. The biggest bulge has come since 2003, when war started in Iraq.

Experts say that, although several factors may be at work in the burgeoning caseload, many veterans of past wars reexperience their own trauma as they watch televised images of U.S. troops in combat and read each new accounting of the dead.

"It so directly parallels what happened to Vietnam veterans," said Raymond M. Scurfield of the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast campus, who worked with the disorder at VA for more than 20 years and has written two books on the subject. "The war has to be triggering their issues. They're almost the same issues."

At VA, officials said the Iraq war is probably a contributing factor in the rise in cases, although they said they have conducted no formal studies.

PTSD researcher John P. Wilson, who oversaw a small recent survey of 70 veterans -- nearly all from Vietnam -- at Cleveland State University, said 57 percent reported flashbacks after watching reports about the war on television, and almost 46 percent said their sleep was disrupted. Nearly 44 percent said they had fallen into a depression since the war began, and nearly 30 percent said they had sought counseling since combat started in Iraq.

"Clearly the current Iraq war, and their exposure to it, created significantly increased distress for them," said Wilson, who has done extensive research on Vietnam veterans since the 1970s. "We found very high levels of intensification of their symptoms. . . . It's like a fever that has gone from 99 to 104."

Vietnam veterans are the vast majority of VA's PTSD disability cases -- more than 73 percent. Veterans of more recent wars -- Iraq, Afghanistan and the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- together made up less than 8 percent in 2005.

VA officials said other reasons for the surge in cases may include a lessening of the stigma associated with PTSD and the aging of the Vietnam generation -- explanations that veterans groups also suggest.

PTSD is better understood than it once was, said Paul Sullivan, director of programs for the group Veterans for America. "The veterans are more willing to accept a diagnosis of PTSD," he said, "and the VA is more willing to make it."

In addition, as Vietnam veterans near retirement age, "they have more time to think, instead of focusing on making a living all the time, and for some this is not necessarily a good thing," said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Max Cleland, a former U.S. senator from Georgia and onetime head of the VA who was left a triple amputee by the Vietnam War, said the convergence of age and the Iraq war has created problems for many of his fellow veterans -- as well as for himself.

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