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United States

US veterans return home to a difficult future

The war in Afghanistan has been going on for over 11 years. More than 2.2 million Americans have been deployed there to date. 360,000 of those returning require psychological assistance - and the tendency is growing.

Some 700,000 veterans returning from overseas have sought medical treatment, over half for mental problems such as depression and aggression. These figures from the US Department of Veterans Affairs amount to those troops who have turned to the authority for assistance. But just how many former soldiers seek psychological support from non-governmental organizations is unknown.

"It is likely though that this figure is also very high," said Barbara Van Dahlen. The psychologist based in Washington DC founded the nonprofit organization "Give an hour" seven years ago. It organizes volunteers to help returning veterans and their families.

Psychologists but also non-experts who would like to volunteer can register on the organization's website. This enables former soldiers to easily locate contacts in their vicinity should they require psychological support. Some 6,000 volunteers are meanwhile registered with "Give an hour."

Barbara Van Dahlen

Time magazine recently named Van Dahlen one of the 100 most influential people in the world

Many unemployed veterans

For several years now, US veterans have increasingly suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. It is often caused by experiences in combat, but also by sexual harassment and rape within the military. Maggie Martin was among the troops who invaded Iraq. In 2005, the army sent the 30-year-old back to the war zone. She didn't want to show any weakness and didn't want to be stigmatized. For years, she kept it a secret that she had been raped in the army.

"They didn't tell and I didn't talk about it, until five years later, because I was in a safe community of people who were taking on that issue, taking on military sexual trauma, breaking the silence around the fact that it happens so often in the military," Martin said.

There are hardly any jobs for returning soldiers - especially those who are injured physically or mentally. These traumatic experiences take such a serious toll on many veterans that they completely lose touch with reality and land on the street. Van Dahlen founded her initiative after a question by her daughter got her thinking.

"She wanted to know why we have so many homeless veterans in such a wealthy country," Van Dahlen said. Official statistics show that 150,000 of all US veterans do not have a permanent residence. Almost 10 percent of the number of homeless registered in the US in 2010 - some 13,000 people - served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the newspaper USA Today.

President Barack Obama applauds after presenting the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. Giunta, of Hiawatha, Iowa, is the first living veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive the award.

Some veterans are honored, like Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

Around 12 percent of all US veterans who have served in the military since 2001 are unemployed. The 26-year-old GI Curtis Sirmans was a soldier for six years, also serving in Iraq. Today, he suffers from arthritis, depression and sleep disorders. The road back to civilian life is difficult and he is living with his parents.

"My mom says I'm different," Sirmans said. "She says I don't go out, I don't do anything but sit in the house. And it has a lot to do with my injury. Plus I just don't want to go out and do some of the things I used to do because of the injury. I'm trying to get used to this whole being home thing. It's different, it's weird."

The number of those who are permanently traumatized is difficult to approximate. It is highly likely though that most soldiers suffer from mental problems because their units were involved in combat.

"I said to myself that there must be something we can do to help them by means of new media," Van Dahnen said in explaining her motivation to found "Give an hour." The idea was born: appeal to the public to give a little bit of time to veterans to help them. The 52-year-old Van Dahlen herself experienced while she was growing up how difficult things were for returning veterans from Vietnam. Her own father served as a soldier in World War II.

Authorities optimizing processes

Although so many US veterans suffer from severe mental problems, there is no standardized program for returning soldiers in the United States, just as is the case in many European countries. There is only assistance on an individual basis and following close assessment. A soldier who has been injured or becomes ill on a deployment can apply for treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But it has to be proven exactly that the illness is related to their service. The first five years of medical care are then free.

In addition, former soldiers and their families can seek counseling and services at one of the 288 veteran centers across the country. But there are increasing reports that they have to wait to months for treatment such as psychotherapy. This can have devastating results when there is a threat of suicide.

Kevin Lowe, a homeless veteran, rests in New Life Evangelistic Center's Tent City across from the St. Louis City Hall in an attempt to raise awareness about homeless veterans and their survival

But thousands of veterans are forced to live on the streets in the US

The government and military have become more alert toward mental illnesses since suicide rates increased significantly among veterans over the past five years. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs' Katz Suicide Study from 2008, the threat of suicide among veterans at that time was already three times higher than in the rest of the population. The New York Times reported that on average, a US veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are counted every year.

"There are preventative training programs in the military against posttraumatic stress disorder," Van Dahlen said. The United States today helps veterans better than during the Vietnam War, she added. "But there is still a long way to go until this support is turned into concrete assistance for all veterans."

Divided perception

How does American society view veterans? Many US citizens know only little about the lives of soldiers, Van Dahlen said.

"Veterans are regarded very highly, but I don't believe that this alone does justice to their situation," she said. "There are often false conceptions about soldiers among Americans - why they serve, what kinds of families they come from and what happens to them when they come home."

Maggie Martin said she considers politicians' platitudes of veterans as pure show. Most Americans also prefer to admire the image of the hero who doesn't display any weakness.

U.S. Air Force veteran Wendy Haylor, of Piedmont, W.Va., checks in with Amy Theriault, Women Veterans Program Manager at the Women Veterans Health Clinic at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W. Va.

Many former female soldiers also face unemployment and poverty

"It seems like it is really popular to say we support the troops and put a yellow sticker on your vehicle," Martin said. "There are a lot of people who want to silence us as soldiers speaking out against the war and speaking out about our own experiences. They say it's unpatriotic. They say we should just keep our mouths shut and do our job."

In the United States, there are two positions toward veterans. On the one hand, there is an attitude supported by the media that the military should be admired and appreciated. On the other hand, many US citizens view the situation on America's fronts critically.

Surveys show that 60 percent of Americans are opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the military are often viewed with disdain. But in the process, neither attitude does justice to the problems of veterans. Many former soldiers are broken individuals and will remain traumatized for many years to come - some even for the rest of their lives. They are pursued by things which they had to do, see and suffer until they returned to their homeland, where most people could not truly understand them.

Author: Elisabeth Friedgen with additional material from DW-TV / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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