Horrors of war get reality check
The dazzling smile Serena Hayden flashes in photographs masks the horrors of war she witnessed in Iraq.
She was a public affairs specialist, a job that some dismiss as cushy. Done right, however, the job means sharing the risks borne by combat soldiers. After all, you can’t document a war if you’re not in it.
As the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz reported in Wednesday’s editions, Hayden lives with guilt she feels about the death of a photojournalist. She had arranged for the vistor to ride in a convoy. The convoy ended up getting attacked, and the journalist was killed.
“I sat curled up next to his body bag, crying and crying because of the guilt I felt,” she said. “I still to this day feel responsible. I don’t know when it’s ever going to end or get better.”
While in Iraq, Hayden — who served with the 1st Cavalry Division — rode in convoys that were always targets for enemy attacks or roadside bombs. She came under fire. She covered funerals.
“We lost 110 soldiers in our brigade,” she said. “You go to 110 funerals in a year and see if it doesn’t affect you.”
Yet when Hayden filed a compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, it was denied. But a change in the way those claims are processed by the Department of Veterans Affairs will at last reflect the realities of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though long overdue, the change is none- theless welcome.
The Mayo Clinic’s definition of post-traumatic stress disorder is: “A type of anxiety disorder which is triggered by a traumatic event. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.” Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe depression, hopelessness, anger, shame, selfdestructive behavior and hallucinations.
The disorder can be severe enough to break up families and make it difficult for a veteran to hold a job. That’s why the rules revision on PTSD claims is welcome. Even so, Hayden, who now lives in Pflugerville, knows the process will be long and tedious.
PTSD claims lead to disability compensation if the veteran can show a service related “stressor.” As should be the case, the claim filing is little more than formality for combat troops — infantry, artillery and armor.
Until Tuesday, support personnel like Hayden had to present documents and witness statements. The rules worked against women, who are barred from combat units but who nonetheless share the war’s dangers. Hayden was only one of 250,000 who have served so far in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The eventual cost of the revision is not yet known, but given that 1 million troops were discharged from the military between 2001 and 2009 and became eligible for VA service, it will be a big number.
Of that million, 46 percent sought treatment for some ailment, disease or disability. Of those, 48 percent were diagnosed with a mental health problem. This is a rate of about 25 percent of returning troops having some form of PTSD, according to one estimate.
It’s going to be expensive, but no amount of money will ever erase the horror. But given what the country asks of its military personnel, it is the least we can do.
sgt. serena hayden, a public affairs specialist deployed to iraq from 2006 to 2008, poses with the niece of diyala province gov. ra’ad hameed al-Mula Jowad al-tamimi during a visit to his house. but hayden’s deployment was hardly idyllic, and she has sought treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, which has been denied so far.