Breaking It Down

It may not be PTSDs or brain injuries that pose the most long-term danger to our surviving vets from their Middle East tours.

Breaking It Down

Be sure to read the sidebar to this story, Breaking It Down: The Hard Stuff.

After two tours of duty in Iraq, Matthew Gonzales says he has the body of a 45-year-old. Trouble is, he's 30.

Before the war, the South Houston High School product was an avid athlete — a runner and a kayaker, a barrel-chested hard-charger whose Facebook picture shows him riding a racing motorcycle. After two years in the broiling Iraqi scrub with the Army's First Cavalry Division, those prewar-style frolics are over for him now, barring medical treatments he can't afford.

Former VA social worker and Vietnam vet Carroll McInroe believes that the numbers of sufferers of terrible maladies like PTSD and traumatic brain injury have been overstated, and that the extent of the back-pain epidemic has been swept under the rug.
Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review
Former VA social worker and Vietnam vet Carroll McInroe believes that the numbers of sufferers of terrible maladies like PTSD and traumatic brain injury have been overstated, and that the extent of the back-pain epidemic has been swept under the rug.
Iraq vet Anthony Gonzales was diligent in documenting his back injury on the way out of the service and has been able to draw disability pay. He says that the medical treatment he got in the VA was frustrating and ineffective.
Daniel Kramer
Iraq vet Anthony Gonzales was diligent in documenting his back injury on the way out of the service and has been able to draw disability pay. He says that the medical treatment he got in the VA was frustrating and ineffective.

Gonzales wasn't wounded. He doesn't suffer from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. Instead, he says, his back is ruined and his knees are shot. "I can't run no more. I stay in back pain every day," he says. "Basically, it comes from just jumping out of trucks with all that gear on."

Gonzales once weighed himself with and without gear. Unladen, he clocked in at 185 pounds. Loaded up for battle with an 80-pound pack and 40 pounds of body armor, he tipped the scales at close to 300 pounds. And he was loaded up day after day, week after week, month after month.

Today, his legs regularly go numb from sciatica. He can't stand on his tiptoes or the balls of his feet. He can't bend over, and he has to lie down to put on pants. When sitting, he has to have one of his legs pointed out in front of him.

Matthew Gonzales is far from alone. Social worker Carroll McInroe saw hundreds of guys like him in his five years as the Iraq/Afghanistan coordinator in the Spokane, Washington, office of the Department of Veterans Affairs. A Vietnam vet who served in Army Intelligence, McInroe helped returning Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans re-acclimate to civilian life. He saw scores of kids with PTSD, and some with severe traumatic brain injuries.

As terrible as those cases were, McInroe believed then and believes now that neither is the most common debilitating ailment veterans of those conflicts face.

"I interviewed five to eight kids a day, totaling about a thousand," he says. "Particularly among the young infantryman and Marines, I would notice them groaning and moaning and grabbing their backs when they would sit down. Some of 'em, a small percentage, would come in just literally dragging their leg. Scraping on the floor."

McInroe, a retiree whose years in the rainy Pacific Northwest have done nothing to erode his steely Texas ranch country accent, says the guys would never mention their aching backs. He would have to draw that out of them himself.

"They would just sit down and go on and talk about their combat — I was assessing them for PTSD and traumatic brain injury and all that sort of thing," he says. "Since I always wanted to know everything about my kids — my vets — by the second week I started asking them, 'What's the matter with your back? How come you guys are always having trouble sitting down?' And that's when they started opening up.'

"Oh Jeez, my fuckin' back is killin' me," he heard, all too often.

McInroe started to ask each and every vet who came through his office if they were suffering back pain. Just about all of them had pain, he says. "I would say 70 percent of them. And not just a little. I'm talking chronic stuff here — misaligned vertebrae, bulging discs, herniated discs, the whole list of back problems." At national conventions, he would share his informal findings with his counterparts at other VA facilities. They told him much the same situation prevailed in their offices. He called around to military hospitals and asked the nurses what their most common complaint might be. Back pain, he was always told.

He saw nothing like that among his cohorts in Vietnam. Since grunts have humped heavy packs since Napoleon's day with no resulting epidemic of back woes, McInroe believes that modern body armor is to blame. "It's too heavy. You can't just put 120 pounds on a 19, 20-year-old musculoskeletal system, 14 hours a day, 365 days a year and not create some real serious problems."

And in his view, this is a real serious problem indeed. If McInroe's estimate — that 70 percent of returning veterans have moderate to severe back problems — holds true across the nation, the costs to America's taxpayers will be enormous, and the bill will do nothing but grow and grow over the next 50 years.

"Typically, when your back is injured it's injured for life," McInroe says. These things just get worse, he says, and adds that veterans who were 50 percent disabled in 2008 will be 70 percent disabled in a couple of years. The peak years for World War II disability payments were in the 1980s, 40 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then there are the other costs, namely, addictions to powerful, narcotic pain pills such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. According to VA statistics, narcotic addictions are the fastest-growing substance-abuse issue today's military is facing.

McInroe says the VA's doctors are enormously overworked, and that they routinely put in 12-hour days, even if they are only paid for eight. "The quickest way for them to see the most patients is to just write scripts. "Not all of them, but a lot of doctors are guilty of over-medicating," he says. "We didn't realize this at the time, but within a few weeks these guys were becoming addicts, and the doctors just kept givin' 'em pills. There was nothing else to do — no pain clinics." (See "The Hard Stuff.")

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
14 comments
alois40
alois40

Thanks to Lomax and the Press for writing and publishing this story on servere injuries to our vets of Iraq and Afganistan who suffer from injuries that have been heretofore been overshadowed by the PTSD injuries. When one reads this well written and documented article, the conclusion is that without advocates our soldiers suffering from the muscloskeletal-conttective tissue injuries will not receive the attention and medical care they deserve.

Rixar13
Rixar13

"After two tours of duty in Iraq, Matthew Gonzales says he has the body of a 45-year-old. Trouble is, he's 30"

I see this everyday at the VA hospital....

dobs
dobs

- this mechanic's numerous car&motorcycle mishaps resulted in total body pain & intermittent inability to walkfor 30+yrs, until giving Structural Integration,aka,Rolfing &Osteopathy a shot...combine that with diet: no dairy & epsom salt baths,vit c & Homeopthy...No pharma drugs,ever.At age 50+,the pain&disability is close to nil...cheers

Ben Brink
Ben Brink

Still going around with the VA on neck pain from this armor--was pretty heavy at age 57. I'm now retired from service and glad to be done.

fratdawgg23
fratdawgg23

It seems like apples and orages comparing the current Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to vets of past combat missions. Specifically, WWII vets were rotated out of combat on a regular basis; over the past ten-plus years, many of our vets have been re-deployed into combat two or more times, whether by choice or orders.

Re: PTSD, it would be interesting to better understand the devastating and long-term harm to our military personnel by Bush's wars of choice, I can't help but think much of the PTSD is a result of using our military to invade and occupy two sovereign nations, killing many thousands of innocent civilians, and the guilt of knowing that they must follow orders but that the orders are causing the deaths of people just as innocent as their own families back home. The 'insurgents' are far too often not 'terrorists', but rather civilians who have taken up arms in disorganized groups to fight the armies that have invaded and continue to occupy their country. It is no less devastating to see one's fellow citizens killed by night raids, drone attacks or sport killing sprees as it is for soldiers to see fellow soldiers killed by roadside bombs or during the ambush of a convoy of vehicles.

Use our military for defense or peacekeeping if requested in hot spots, but to use the men and women of our armed services to kill thousands of civilians - and they are all civilians since neither of the armies of Iraq and Afghanistan attacked us first nor do their armies resist our occupation. Are the guilty consciences from killing so many innocent people a cause for the high suicide rate of our military? No matter how one looks at it, we must remember to attribute these wars of choice to the Bush admin - the most dangerous since neither ever served in active duty in combat yet were sure quick to threaten and carry out the use of our military for political reasons. Their consciences, if they have any, should burden them until their last breath.

MN Soldier
MN Soldier

All previous wars, Soldiers did not have to wear 50 pounds of body armor. The Flak Vest of Vietnam is a t-shirt compared to what WE (yes, I'm still in) wear on a daily basis. Yes, it does suck. BUt; when you combine the advances that have been made in body armor and the advances in critical hospital care; more of us are surviving them war. At least in body.

Yes, after four deployments to Iraq I can say my back hurts. My knees hurt, I loathe running. Now lets add in the weight of the rifle (M-16 weighs 7.9 pounds), ammo, plus water (Camelback), plus all the other crap we have to carry. And if its in Afghanistan - then you have to add in the weight of the rucksack, plus cold weather gear. On average 100 pounds.

When I got on the scale in Germany to leave for Iraq in 2003, I weighed 180 pounds. Then I had to get back on with all my gear -- 350 pounds. Did it suck? Yuppers. But it is what I decided to do. I wasn't drafted. I volunteered.

No about PTSD. Battle fatigue, Shell Shock. Whatever you want to call it. "IT" DOES exist. Any Veteran who tries to tell you otherwise is only kidding themselves. Stories of battle fatigue are as old as war. Case in point. World War II, General Patton on arriving at a 1st Infantry Division Field Hospital sees many Soldiers wounded in "glorious battle;" then he sees one kid of in a corner. Nothing appeared to be wrong. Soldier, when asked by GEN Patton "What's the matter with you?" replies "I can't take it anymore, the shelling." Patton becomes enraged and smacks the kids helmet off. Patton then threatens to shoot the Soldier. Was Patton right? Yes AND No. Patton in his diary wrote that "...he hoped to knock some good common sense in to the boy." The boy was taken out by the hospital staff, and checked out. Turns out the Soldier HAD battle-fatigue (shell shock, PTSD), and another ailment; dysentery. Which if left untreated can take out more than just one Soldier.

I see Soldiers deal with PTSD everyday. I know I deal with my own. I don't like explosions. Why? Because the week of July 8-14 2007 my little corner of Iraq was hit with over 400 rounds of 107mm rockets and 82mm mortars. July 10, 2007 saw 62 rounds of 82mm mortars landing between 50-200 meters from my desk. I don't like loud sounds. But that's just me.

The issue isn't; what Surfn2336 thinks as Soldiers being weaker. In fact it is just the opposite. Soldiers are becoming more resilient; we are able to bounce back after facing a potentially traumatic event. The difference between my service today and my fathers service in Korea (50-53); or hell, my grandfathers service in World War I has less to do with the Soldier, and MORE to do with the advancements in protective technology. Advancements in traumatic medical care. Advancements in psychiatry. And yes, advancements in man's propensity to kill another in a more efficient manner.

As General Sherman said in our own Civil War. "War is Hell."

Surfn2336
Surfn2336

Nothing about the Gulf or Iraq wars was remotely similar to what the soldiers endured in Vietnam and WW2 yet we seem to have a much larger number of PTSD style complaints, aches and pains etc. What is the deal. Is our new soldier weaker than those of the past? I worked with a guy who was in the "hamburger hill" area of vietnam. His stories make Iraq sound like a day at the playground.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

Such an eye-opening article! Our troops & vets deserve much, MUCH better. Thank you John Lomax & Houston Press for covering this.

Sanjuana Gabriela Enríquez Gal
Sanjuana Gabriela Enríquez Gal

Just to make this clear, after 9/11, it was clear that we were going to invade Afghanistan. There were only a small number of people who objected to the Afghanistan invasion. As far as we are concerned, it was 100% good, okay, just and moral to invade Afghanistan to root out the Taliban. Whether the subsequent Afghanistan strategy was legitimate and/or whether we should still be here IS an acceptable debate. But to question invading... No.

On the other hand, Iraq *was* a terrible idea because the U.S. didn't take the time to learn the true situation on the ground, and when it did overthrow Saddam, it failed to provide effective services and security for the Iraqi people, making them *hate* the US occupation (if the U.S. had provided services and security for the Shiites, then they may not have hated the US that much)

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

I think our troops today suffer just as much as they did during WW1 & 2 and visa-versa. For that matter, if you look at photos of injuries from The Civil War, they were quite horrific. Part of what's different is modern technology and medical abilities. Not only can we fight our enemies a lot more effectively, but we can heal and diagnose a lot more things now than we could just 20 years ago.

Also, history only records certain facts. It's impossible to compare PTSD / shell shock statistics from past wars, because in a lot of cases, there are no statistics on record any longer.

Wyatt
Wyatt

It's a different culture now. PTSD wasn't something that was talked about post-WWII. Just because it's mentioned more now doesn't mean it happens more. It's just more acceptable to talk about it.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

PTSD used to be called "shell shock" and it was a huge deal during and after World War I.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

Agree! Even if you read about The Civil War or the American Revolution, you can find stories of men committing suicide, abandoning their families, or becoming alcoholics because they are emotionally devastated by what they've been through. War is a terrible thing, regardless of the century one lives in or the necessity of the battle.

 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...