- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

CHICAGO — More than a third of U.S. troops received psychological counseling soon after returning from Iraq, according to a Pentagon study that could add fodder to a budget battle in Congress regarding veterans’ health care.

Thirty-five percent of Iraq veterans received mental health care during their first year home, according to the study. In addition, 12 percent of the more than 222,000 returning Army soldiers and Marines in the study were diagnosed with a mental problem.

The researchers did not find the results surprising, because the military has a new mental health screening program for returning soldiers and is encouraging them to get help early to prevent serious problems later, said study co-author Dr. Charles Hoge, a colonel at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Because of the new screening program, the findings cannot be compared with those from previous wars, Dr. Hoge said.

“There are psychological consequences of war, and we want to address those up front,” Dr. Hoge said. “The hope is we won’t have as high rates of mental health consequences as we’ve seen in prior wars.”

In contrast, 11 percent of those back from Afghanistan and 8.5 percent of those returning from other places, such as Bosnia, reported mental health concerns.

Veterans’ advocates said the study, which appears in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, supports their call for increased spending on mental health care for Iraq veterans.

President Bush’s budget plan includes a 6 percent increase in spending for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But some in Congress say that is not enough because the increase hinges on more than $1 billion in cuts in other VA spending and the approval of new fees and co-payments for some veterans.

“This budget would ultimately shortchange veterans who need mental health services,” said Ralph Ibson, a vice president of the National Mental Health Association. “This study can and should be a wake-up call in terms of veterans’ mental health needs.”

Medical authorities first accepted post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric condition in 1980 at the urging of Vietnam veterans. A previous study by Dr. Hoge and his colleagues found 15 percent to 17 percent of troops returning from Iraq showed signs of the disorder, and many were reluctant to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

Shortly after starting the ground war in Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon began requiring returning service members to complete a three-page survey that is used to decide who needs further help.

Among other things, the veterans are asked whether they have had nightmares, whether they are constantly on guard or easily startled, and whether they feel numb or detached from others.

“In prior wars, mental health issues weren’t studied until years, sometimes decades, after the soldiers came back,” Dr. Hoge said. “For this war, we’re doing it differently.”

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