It's estimated that a US war veteran dies every 80 minutes; not in combat, but by committing suicide.
In addition to being rocked by some 6,500 suicides each year, the veteran community is grappling with the trauma of returned servicemen killing their families and even complete strangers in violent attacks.
But who's helping the veterans deal with what's known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No one, say the families, whose pleas for help have been all but ignored.
With more troops coming home for good in the next few years to both the US and Australia, it's left many wondering where it will all end.
WATCH - Click to see Nick's report.
INTERVIEW WITH NICK - Nick Lazaredes talks to SBS Radio's World News Australia, and explains more about the disturbing stories he heard from veterans' families.
BLOG - Nick first reported on PTSD in the United States for Dateline in 2007. He writes for the Dateline blog about how much, or little, has changed since then.
REPLAY: FORGOTTEN SOLDIERS - Watch Nick's 2007 story on the 'forgotten soldiers'.
EXTRA INFORMATION - Find out more about PTSD and the support and treatment available in the US and Australia.
Interview With Nick
Listen to Nick Lazaredes talking to SBS Radio's World News Australia about the disturbing stories he heard from the families of veterans.
Nick has been researching the effects of PTSD in the US, both among current and past soldiers. He writes for the Dateline blog about what, if anything, has changed over the years...
If the humanity of a nation can be measured by the way it looks after its soldiers returning from war, then I think the United States has been found seriously wanting.
With a military tradition that stretches back to the Civil War, it beggars belief that after each conflict, lessons have to be relearned about the mental trauma of war – not only how it affects soldiers and their families, but society as a whole.
In 2007, I travelled to the US to report for Dateline on America’s Forgotten Soldiers – men and women deeply troubled by post-traumatic stress who were slipping through the cracks of a bureaucracy, which was failing to provide the support they needed to adjust to life away from the battlefield. I was confronted by one heart-wrenching story after another, of soldiers who’d lost their way, tortured souls who, notwithstanding the often heroic efforts of their desperate families, had ultimately taken their own lives.
I recently returned, five years later, to find what was a steady stream of neglected soldiers has now become a torrent. What were previously regarded as cracks in the system, should now be described as gaping holes.
With America’s planned exit from Afghanistan approaching, up to 50,000 soldiers will soon descend upon society – many of them bearing deep emotional scars. Already, hundreds of US soldiers diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have had their diagnoses overturned, while thousands more, worried about the stigma of PTSD, are reluctant to seek help. Already, the rate of veteran suicides has reached staggering levels – 6,500 lives lost a year. That’s more than the number of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This time however, a high price may be exacted from American society for its complacency, and the negligence of its military brass.
By recycling its combat troops over and over again, the US military is pushing the outer limits of human endurance. Already, some special forces soldiers have served more than a dozen tours of duty, a frequency that is unprecedented in modern warfare. The degree of psychological stress triggered by these multiple deployments has never been measured, but the impact is now beginning to appear with frightening clarity.
Throughout the US, an alarming pattern is emerging of not only self-harm by veterans, but harm inflicted on others. In Seattle this New Year’s Eve, a disturbed young veteran of the Iraq War exploded in a fit of rage, shooting four people before fleeing into a national park where he shot and killed a park ranger. In Orange County, California, another troubled veteran of the Iraq War is facing trial over the deaths of four homeless men, as well as a mother and a child. The town of Gilroy in northern California is still coming to terms with the actions of a returned veteran who shot and killed his mother and 11-year-old sister before turning the gun on himself, earlier this year. All of these men were reportedly suffering from PTSD.
Of course, it’s all been seen before. When American soldiers returned home from Vietnam a similar dismal picture surfaced. The mental health of returning soldiers was neglected and as growing numbers of them took their own lives, were incarcerated, or fell into a spiral of homelessness and substance abuse, the more vehemently the problem was denied. Almost 40 years on, it seems not much has changed, and it is inexcusable. Until recently, this hidden epidemic was the US military’s most shameful secret but its existence can no longer be denied, and its Generals are scrambling for cover.
Neglected and ignored, and plagued with inner turmoil, legions of American soldiers have brought the horrors of war back home. With its hard-hearted military commanders looking the other way, American society has been left with the mammoth task of healing its troubled warriors. How many times must history repeat itself before the lessons of war are learned, and remembered?
Last week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the majority of troops expected to be home by the end of 2013. While the numbers will not be as great, there is no denying that many Australian soldiers will be dealing with the stress and trauma of what they have experienced in combat. Is Australia prepared for their return?
Replay: Forgotten Soldiers
Replay Nick's previous story on PTSD in the United States, Forgotten Soldiers, which was broadcast in November 2007.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect people who've been through a severely traumatic event, such as involvement in a life-threatening incident in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs and the Australian Government's Department of Veterans' Affairs have websites with more information about the condition...
Most people who've lived through a traumatic event and seriously feared for their lives will have some symptoms to begin with, but only about 1 in 3 continue to have problems.
The symptoms can include...
- Repeatedly reliving the event and the feelings surrounding it
- Avoiding situations that may trigger memories of what happened
- Feeling numb and unable to express feelings
- Being constantly keyed up... unable to sleep or concentrate and easily becoming angry
If not treated properly, this can lead to issues such as drink and drug abuse, employment problems, relationship breakdowns, and the kind of serious mental health issues seen in Nick's report.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs website offers information on the counselling and therapy that can be used to treat PTSD sufferers and assist their families, along with the medication available.
There's similar information for Australians returning from war and wanting more information on the Australian Government's Department of Veterans' Affairs site.