Big changes underway at the VA could mean better treatment for thousands of vets. A bureaucracy in transition.
By Jamie Reno Newsweek Web Exclusive
October 1, 2009
They are the invisible wounds of war, the battered minds and bruised spirits we have come to recognize as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. By one estimate, more than 300,000 of the nearly 2 million U.S. servicemen and -women deployed since 9/11 suffer from the often-debilitating condition, with symptoms that include flashbacks and nightmares, emotional numbness, relationship problems, trouble sleeping, sudden anger, and drug and alcohol abuse. The number of cases is expected to climb as the war in Afghanistan continues, and could ultimately exceed 500,000, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford University. Mental-health experts say PTSD is the primary reason suicides in the military are at an all-time high; 256 soldiers took their own lives in 2008, the highest number since that data was first tracked, in 1980.
As NEWSWEEK and others have reported, the Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to address this mental-health crisis, and thousands of veterans have suffered as a result. Now, thanks to new leadership and a new openness to collaboration, things appear to be changing at the VA, if slowly. Veterans still often face insufferably long waits for treatment and steep bureaucratic hurdles when filing disability claims. But there is a new sense of urgency under Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star Army general appointed to head the agency by President Obama, to change the culture within the 77-year-old VA. Shinseki has made PTSD a priority, with efforts underway to address concerns from the way claims are processed to the development of new, more effective treatments. "Brain injuries and the psychological consequences of battle are not new to combat," Shinseki tells NEWSWEEK. "We know from past wars that with early diagnosis and treatment, people can get better."
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