Iraq veterans deal with PTSD, unemployment

Marshall Cohen

Under the cover of darkness, the last American troops serving in Iraq began on Dec. 28 the 200-mile trek through the desert toward Kuwait. Five hours later, their journey – and the nearly nine-year conflict in Iraq – was officially over.

But for many veterans returning home to the United States, new conflicts arise as they begin the difficult transition to non-combat life.

Many develop mental illnesses after experiencing psychological trauma on the battlefield. Sgt. Ray Parrish, president of Chicago-Area Veterans for Peace, has counseled veterans for decades and said the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is “beyond belief.”

After encountering a homeless Afghanistan veteran in February 2003 – barely more than one year after the initial invasion – Parrish decided to revive a counseling hotline for veterans that was shut down in the 1970s after its funding dried up.

“We realized that the number of veterans with PTSD was going to grow beyond the belief of anyone outside of the small veterans community,” he said. “And we were predicting exactly what we are seeing now.”

The hotline, run by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, is funded by donations from organization members. Contributions also come in from people who lived during the Vietnam War “who remember what we dealt with at that time,” Parrish said.

Since it was reopened in March 2003, the hotline has helped as many as 3,000 veterans, 50 percent of whom served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, Parrish said.

Sometimes the phone calls only last a few minutes. Other times the calls come at a moment of crisis, sometimes in the middle of a suicide attempt.

A troubling study released last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that, on average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day. The VA has its own suicide hotline that handles roughly 10,000 calls each month.

The VA has expanded its mental health services in recent years, offering a wide variety of outreach and PTSD education programs and promoting state-of-the-art therapy techniques.

In 2007, the VA transformed its mental health care delivery system to a “recovery-oriented” and “evidence-based” system of care, said Dr. Bradley Karlin, the VA’s national mental health director for psychotherapy and psychogeriatrics. As part of this transformation, the department added 8,000 staff members to its mental health team of 22,000 full-time employees, he said.

On the department’s website, veterans can access dozens of guides, videos and tools to learn about the symptoms of mental illness and locate nearby rehabilitation centers. It recently launched an educational mobile application called PTSD Coach that is already being used in several countries around the world, Karlin said.

A large part of Karlin’s job is centered around outreach and informing veterans about the services and programs available at the VA.

“We’d love for them to come to the VA to get care with some of the new, state-of-the-art psychotherapies that are not available in the private sector and only available in the VA,” he said. “Our experiences with vets who have used these treatments have been overwhelmingly positive. In many, many cases the veterans can recover and reclaim their lives.”

The VA also works closely with other federal departments to help veterans suffering from a different type of problem: unemployment.

The unemployment rate for veterans is 12 percent, which is higher than the 8.6 percent national unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Young veterans suffered the most: The unemployment rate for veterans between 20 and 24 peaked at 30 percent in 2011.

The Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, or VETS, is a Department of Labor program that provides resources to veterans seeking to re-enter the civilian workforce. VETS also provides millions of dollars in grants each year for training programs and helps employers find qualified veterans to fill job openings.

Additionally, a Department of Defense organization called Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve helped guarantee reservists can return to their pre-existing jobs once they return home.

Reservists, who live as civilians but undergo regular training can be called to serve at any time.

These programs have little effect on reservists who are small business owners, like Cmdr. Dan Adams, who led an intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance team in Iraq from October 2010 to June 2011. Adams (McCormick ’91), who was first commissioned by the Naval ROTC at Northwestern, became a certified financial planner after leaving active duty in 2002 and started his own business in Walla Walla, Wash. after receiving his certification in 2008.

“You make the decision to become a small business owner with the understanding that you’re taking up a certain degree of risk and if you’re a member of the Guard or Reserve, then that risk is amplified,” Adams said.

He planned ahead with clients from around the country before leaving for Iraq, preparing accommodations for how their financial affairs would be handled while he was overseas.

“The vast majority of my clients were much more worried about me being in Iraq than their financial needs being met in my absence,” Adams added. “My individual clients make the decision to work with me having the full knowledge that I’m in the Reserves and can get called up at any time.”

After returning from Iraq in June 2011, Adams spent several weeks in Hawaii working on the staff of the United States Pacific Command.

“I’m just now transitioning my financial planning business back as of January first,” he said.

Adams said he plans on taking advantage of the Yellow Ribbon Program, part of the post-9/11 GI Bill, which pays college tuition for veterans or any of their designated family members.

“I absolutely intend to use that benefit to help my kids go to Northwestern, if they are lucky enough to get in,” Adams said.