Hor­rors of war get re­al­ity check

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

COur­TESy OF SEr­EnA HAy­dEn

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.

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