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.

Since he was careful about getting his injury documented, he has been able to start collecting a 70 percent disability check.

Getting his injury diagnosed was another matter, in fact, something of a nightmare, he says. "I went through so many VA doctors," he says. "The first guy tried to tell me it was all in my head. He was like, 'Oh, you missed a couple of mental health therapy sessions.' I was like, 'Dude, you gotta be kiddin' me, dude. I'm gonna choke you out for saying that.'"

Still the pain continued, lightning bolts of stabbing agony shooting from the small of his back down the rear of his leg and across the bottom of his foot and into his toes.

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.

He went to see another VA doctor, who misdiagnosed him with a torn muscle. "And then I got a damn MRI at the VA, and they said, 'Oh yeah, it's a torn muscle,' and I was like I know you guys ain't telling me the truth," he says. And still the pain continued.

Finally, Matthew looked beyond the VA. A doctor in private practice told him that it sounded like his sciatic nerve was pinched. "She took an MRI and that was it," he says. He was diagnosed with two bulging discs in his lumbar spine. Getting the correct read on his medical situation took a year.

Since he got the correct diagnosis, Matthew's pain has been brought to heel. After a round of steroids courtesy of the private-practice doctor, he has undergone a series of nerve-root injections. They have helped keep down the inflammation and have tempered his sciatica, he says. "They aren't a cure-all, but they have cooled it down," he says.

On good days, he can even run.
_____________________

Tales of long waits and drawn-out processes and red tape are common today. Despite having hired 2,700 new employees in the past year, the VA is being swamped with new disability claimants and hospital patients, and while some older vets will tell you that service has improved since the 1970s, often they will say in the next breath that back then it had been positively medieval.

Veterans for Common Sense praised the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget request of $140.3 billion for fiscal year 2013, which includes $76.3 billion for benefits.

"VA's budget demonstrates that the Obama administration has heard the concerns of veterans voiced by VCS in the media and in meetings with Congressional and Administration officials," Bellon said in a statement. "President Barack Obama is serious about making progress to address many of the longstanding deficiencies at VA. In public policy terms, a budget is a statement of priorities. VA's FY2013 budget shows that veterans have been made a high priority by the Obama administration. It will not of course correct every problem, but it goes a long way in that direction and is a good thing for veterans."

McInroe is not sure that money is being well spent, at least not until there are pain-management clinics in every VA hospital. "The bottom line is that we need to be doing something more for these guys besides addicting them to powerful narcotics," he says.

Lighter body armor has also been one of McInroe's pet projects. He knows that little can be done to lighten the load in soldiers' packs: "They need all those beans and bullets," he says. He says that his calls to lighten the body-armor load were met at times with claims that he would see kids "coming home in pine boxes." He doesn't believe that's true. He simply believes that modern technology can come up with something less backbreaking than the stuff worn in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That search has borne mixed results. In 2008, Marines serving in Afghanistan, who often had to fight at altitudes approaching two miles above sea level, were in fact issued lighter and more flexible body armor. These vests were issued to complement rather than supplant the armor they already had, with the choice of which to wear up to the commanding officer's assessment of the threat level.

The Army has had a harder time finding a solution. After a years-long litany of delayed roll-outs and squabbles over safety testing of its own lighter armor, Congress put the Department of Defense on notice and announced at the same time that they were back at square one. In the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, it required that the defense secretary come up with a way to "more effectively address the research, development and procurement requirements regarding reducing the weight of body armor." (Since the Marines and the Navy units that fight alongside them on land favor agility and smaller units over the Army's brute force, they have been able to use the lighter armor that is already available.)

In any event, for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years, the damage has been done, and in these uncertain economic times, veterans with damaged backs face even more daunting prospects than the rest of us.

"This is a working-class army, just like Vietnam," says McInroe. "There are few middle-class kids, fewer upper-middle-class kids, and there damn sure aren't any rich kids. So these kids are gonna have to come home and make their livings with their hands and their backs, not their brains. I'm not sayin' these kids are dumb because they aren't. They just don't have the educations."

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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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