soldierThe mission was called Operation Enduring Freedom, and through several theaters of operation, including Afghanistan, its chief objective was to eradicate enemy forces (such as the Taliban) suspected of actively engaging in terrorism. Unlike America’s last sustained foreign conflict, the Vietnam War, veterans of the global war on terror returned from their tours of duty as war heroes. But returning servicemen and -women from both conflicts shared in common unseen battle scars that many wouldn’t see until much later. During wartime, the most common health concern for soldiers is that of life-threatening injuries, like shrapnel injuries, gunshot wounds, and lost limbs. There’s also the threat of exposure to environmental hazards and biological agents, toxic chemicals, and foreign contaminants. In spite of all this, the most prevalent injury is one that can’t be seen, or stitched up, and complications often don’t begin to appear until years later. Individual soldiers may return seemingly well-adjusted after the hardship of battle, but sleepless nights and brutal migraines in the aftermath may be early signs of a what experts are calling an epidemic never been seen in previous wars. And the end result could be tens of thousands of veterans afflicted with mental health conditions, many of them unable to perform the most basic tasks. To date, nearly 2 million troops have served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent studies of returning troops reveal that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects a large percentage of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Healthy soldiers who have survived the horrors of battle, and who hadn’t taken medication to treat anxiety, stress, or depression prior to their deployment, are now being diagnosed with mental health-related issues years later. Veterans returning from deployment are eligible for two years of free military service health care, provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Little remains known about the root causes of mental health diagnoses among veterans returning from Operation Enduring Freedom. One study conducted shortly after deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan assessed the mental health and psycho-social issues of veterans aged 18-24 years. Overall, 31% of the study group received mental health diagnoses, and the youngest group of vets were at greatest risk for receiving mental health or PTSD diagnoses, compared with veterans 40 years or older. Veterans have reported their quality of life diminishes as post-war psychological disorders increase. The prevalence of mental health-related diagnoses among returning soldiers is cause for concern, since without early detection and intervention these men and women could suffer from chronic mental illness, disability, and even the possibility of suicide (which among troops have climbed steadily since the war in Afghanistan began eight years ago). A report released last spring estimates that one in five service members returning from war will contend with symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression. Mental health experts and military officials say this increase is a contributing factor in the rising suicide rates among vets. A record 42 Marines killed themselves in 2008; by this October, that same number had already been matched. “The psycho-social stress experienced by veterans who have engaged in active combat is a uniquely traumatic stressor that can have positive as well as negative consequences and can have both short-term and long-term effects. And the long-term impact of combat stress is not well understood,” said Dr. Anna M. Johnson, Ph.D., lead author of one study and an epidemiology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “With active service populations involved in conflicts in the Middle East since the early 1990s, new groups of American men and women continue to be exposed to combat-related stress,” she said. “Given the pervasiveness of combat exposure in our community, it is important to understand the long-term effects it has on the individuals who experience it.” In the meantime, military officials are responding is to the increasing suicide rates among troops. The Department of Defense (DoD) has launched a five-year study in coordination with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to identify possible indicators for soldier suicide, in order to seek out and help those who are most at risk, and get them any treatment they need. The Pentagon has also assembled a 51-page Army Suicide Prevention pamphlet, and launched several task forces and suicide prevention programs focusing on substance abuse. – Anthony Isaac Palacios