Cover Story: Chronic Back Pain One More Problem for Vets of Iraq & Afghanistan

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Tough-talking, Texas-bred Carroll McInroe was the Iraq / Afghanistan coordinator in the Veterans Administration's Spokane, Washington office from 2003 to 2008. It was his job to interview returnees from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and help them readjust to civilian life.

He saw plenty of cases of PTSD and some horrific traumatic brain injuries, but he soon noticed a severe problem that was much more common: he says that 70 percent of the returning grunts and marines had terrible back problems. Misaligned vertebrae, crushed and bulging discs, the whole gamut. Many had the strained gait of men double or even triple their age.

McInroe says he called around to his colleagues in other cities, and nurses at military hospitals around the country, and to a person, they had noticed much the same phenomenon. He says he next attempted to both publicize and alleviate the epidemic. He was stymied on both counts.

He says the Bush White House feared the bad publicity that would come with news of a generation of crippled heroes. And his efforts to see to it that each and every VA hospital in the country would build a back pain management clinic came to naught.

Two local veterans we found with very little trouble echoed McInroe's claims without knowing of his struggles, or hearing his story, as did a third we talked to in reporting the story.

They all say that the back trouble's cause is simple. They were all forced to carry too much weight for too long. Soldiers' backpacks, loaded not only with the water and "beans and bullets" their fathers and grandfathers carried, are now also loaded down with 20 or 30 extra pounds of electronic gear. Often, soldiers were asked to carry 90, 100, or even 110 pounds on their backs.

And then there's the body armor, which adds another 30-40 pounds. A Navy study conducted in the last decade recommended that soldiers carry no more than 50 pounds. Soldiers in the past war routinely carried double that and did say for weeks on end, jumping in and out of trucks in Iraq's 130-degree heat, or trudging the 10,000-foot rocky mountain passes in Afghanistan.

Read more, in this week's feature "Breaking It Down."

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