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.

And then there were all those soldiers who did multiple backbreaking tours, some not by choice.

McInroe also believes that early in the war, the Bush team had informally selected PTSD and traumatic brain injuries as something akin to pet issues for returning vets. "Those injuries caught on with the public," McInroe says. "It was easy to get funding for them because people understood them."

Despite all you've heard about PTSD and TBI, McInroe still maintains that back pain is a far larger issue. (And he stresses that he does not want it thought that he belittles PTSD or TBI or those who suffer from them.)

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.

"When I retired, the occurrence of PTSD was around 15 percent," he says. "The VA was very happy letting the public think it was 50 or 60 percent because that meant more funding." The same went for TBI, he says. "The VA would like to have people think that it's a pervasive wound," he says. "It is a terrible wound. It's horrible."

One case of TBI seems to have given McInroe himself a case of social worker PTSD. Again and again in the course of our interviews, he talked about a former high school football star from rural Washington. This young man enlisted in the army and was assigned machine gun-turret duty atop a light armored vehicle. On patrol one day, an IED exploded and detached half of this kid's head. "His buddies should have let him die, but they loved him," says McInroe. Today, the young man exists in a persistent vegetative state that could last for decades. "Imagine you were that boy's mama," he says.

So McInroe is not one to take TBI lightly, nor PTSD, which he says is a terrible problem. And yet in terms of numbers, McInroe believes that TBI has been completely overstated. "Percentagewise, it's very little," he says. He maintains that fewer than 1 percent of all wounded and injured have the sort of permanent, life-altering TBI the public has read so much about. "And that's a good thing," he says.

McInroe says that a huge number of those that are labeled with TBI will make full recoveries inside two years, barring organic injury to the brain itself. "If you were about 40 feet from an explosion and it knocked you on your ass and really rang your bell, you may have symptoms for 12, 15, 18 months but they will normally remit. And after that, you don't have traumatic brain injury."

In contrast, McInroe says, the back guys just get worse, and in his years at the VA, precious little was done to treat their underlying ailments, while perhaps too much was done to alleviate their pain.

First, he says, he grants that the VA simply cannot afford to pay the salaries of competent trained neurosurgeons. "They cost $2 million a year and that's not in the budget," he says, and adds that what little neurosurgery was being done in the Pacific Northwest in his time at the VA was performed by interns in Seattle. "And the success rate is pretty low," he says. "I would tell our guys, 'Don't go there. It's too great a risk. It's not a real neurosurgeon, it's a neurosurgeon-wannabe hacking on your spine.'"

Absent neurosurgery, McInroe lobbied for the creation of back-pain clinics in every VA hospital from coast to coast, staffed by pain-management doctors. "Those would be cheaper but still could help take care of this back pain. We never did succeed here."

And so what happened, all too often, was that back-pain sufferers were simply prescribed pills and sent on their way.

Two veterans the Houston Press spoke to described frustrating experiences with the VA's medical system. Though his days are filled with pain, Matthew Gonzales, the First Cavalry scout, says he is still dealing with red tape. He still doesn't draw a penny of disability, and he says the application process has been "long and freakin' crappy." None of the treatments he has yet obtained have brought much if any relief. For him, most of the time powerful pain pills are off the table because of his job's demands — he is an electrical/mechanical technician for Schlumberger. "I don't take no chances like that. If the pain gets too bad, then yes, I do," he says. A doctor in private practice has told him he needs steroid shots in his back. "But I don't have money like that," he says.

Anthony Rene Gonzales (no relation to Matthew) has also had to look beyond the VA for a solution to his back injury. Though he was an army mortarman during the war in Iraq, Anthony believes his back pain stems less from being heavily laden than it does from the IED blasts he survived, the last of which hurled him across a truck with such force it damaged the discs in his back.

"It was a catastrophic kill on the vehicle," he says. As with the other two explosions, Anthony was knocked cold. The difference between the last one and the first two was that when he tried to get up this time, the whole right side of his body just gave out.

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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.

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)

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

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.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

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

 
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