Editorial: Open doors for vets

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Long after the last U.S. soldier arrives home from Iraq and Afghanistan, whenever that may be, the war will continue for many who have served there and bear the mental scars of combat.

According to a recent VA report, at least 18 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental-health problems that can make it difficult to have normal relationships with loved ones, hold down a job or otherwise lead a normal life back home. They often experience anxiety or depression, nightmares, enervating guilt or boiling anger. With more women now serving in combat, they’re also suffering from higher incidents of stress disorders than occurred in previous wars.

Unfortunately, the true percentages are likely to be even higher than the reported figures because many veterans don’t get treatment — either because they are reluctant to admit they need help or because of obstacles that make it difficult for veterans and their families to access a health-care maze that often seems cumbersome and bureaucratic. Making sure that adequate resources are available and that returning veterans can easily access them is the goal of a new state initiative, which issued a report last week on how state, federal and local agencies can better coordinate their efforts to assist returning vets.

The report, compiled under the aegis of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, distills the most important conclusions of a September state summit on veterans’ mental health and substance-abuse needs. It notes some significant gaps in mental health support for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to make a peaceful transition back to civilian life. Because of the high number of veterans who are based in North Carolina, it’s critically important that the state make its support network — which includes many public agencies, in addition to the VA system — as seamless as possible.

In many cases, the report notes, veterans may be intimidated by the complexities of seeking services or simply getting information. It recommends making services and referral more widely available across all of North Carolina’s counties and creating a “no wrong door” policy so that veterans aren’t shuffled from one agency to another or left bewildered by red tape and revolving doors. It also stresses the need to do a better job of getting the message out to veterans through more community outreach and more public service announcements delivered through unconventional but effective means, such as posters at barber shops, roadside billboards or informational stickers on beer coolers.

Part of the effort also needs to be aimed at removing the stigma that discourages veterans — and civilians, too, for that matter — from seeking help when they have trouble functioning in the day-to-day world. That’s a battle in itself, one that will require a shift in societal attitudes along with better access to mental health resources.

The men and women who have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have made great sacrifices for their country. It’s small repayment to ease the transition for many who face a rocky homecoming after they leave the battle zone.