Combat Fatigue: As Returning Veterans Suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Record Numbers, a Controversial New Drug Is Being Tested That Would Dampen Their Memories

Article excerpt

Barry Roma, a postal worker and a disabled Vietnam veteran, tells people not to be afraid of him. He is joking, sort of. He knows how veterans--and postal workers--are seen by many people, and luckily he has a sense of humor. By night, he works as a mail handler in Chicago and by day, as national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He helps to put out a biannual publication, The Veteran, and works closely with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. His achievements are hard-earned.

More than 40 years ago, as an officer in Vietnam, he witnessed wartime atrocities that could easily be classified as war crimes. The events occurred decades ago, but they continue to haunt and nearly overwhelm him with remorse. He watched American soldiers demolish villages, burn houses, and shoot civilians. After seeing friends blown up by landmines, he enlisted the help of local farmers, asking them to walk ahead of U.S. troops to look for hidden bombs. No one was hurt during these particular incidents, he says, but he cannot shake the memory of what he did. In May 1968, he left Vietnam to bring home the body of his nephew, a teenager who, he says, "was like my brother."

Back in San Bernadino, California, Roma enrolled at a local college and tried to get on with things, but he discovered that he could not sleep. "I had a tremendous amount of adrenaline," he says. "A couple hours of sleep a night was just perfect." Roma, who is now 60, says he began to drink heavily. (He remembers lots of "sangria with dry ice.") And, though he did not know it at the time, he showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including anxiety and nightmares.

The situation for vets like Roma was particularly difficult, says Michael Blecker, 58, executive director of a San Francisco-based veterans' organization called Swords to Plowshares, because of the lack of understanding about their problems. Blecker got his start in the field of veterans' rights as a law school student in 1976, helping people like Roma file claims for government medical benefits. Many soldiers were coming home from Vietnam and suffering from the same post-traumatic stress Iraq veterans now face. Yet there was no such thing as PTSD, at least not officially. Instead, it was known as post-Vietnam syndrome, and often it was not even recognized. "You couldn't compensate somebody who was having problems with 'whatever the hell it was,'" Blecker says.

Roma eventually received disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But many others who have returned from a war zone (whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan) with shattered nerves have not fared as well. Approximately 18 veterans kill themselves every day, according to an e-mail from a Veterans Affairs official that was revealed in April after two veterans' groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco. More recently, the Army reported that its personnel committed suicide at the highest rate on record in 2007, and the trend is continuing in 2008. Given the severity and magnitude of the problem--Veterans Affairs saw 400,000 veterans for PTSD last year--the Pentagon and administration officials are eager to find a way to address the issue. There have been various approaches, including efforts to cut back on compensation claims. Recently, an advocacy group called VoteVets.org revealed an email written by an official from Olin E. Teague Veterans' Center in Temple, Texas, suggesting mental-health specialists should hold back on diagnosing PTSD. Instead, the official suggested, they should "consider a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder."

In general, however, officials are searching for a comprehensive solution. If things go as hoped, veterans like Roma will not have these problems in the future--not because they will be treated effectively once they return from war, but because they will never suffer from the disorder in the first place. …