HONORING NOT ONLY OUR FALLEN HEROES, Survivors of Iraq War need help too

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Soldiers returning form the war in Iraq suffer mental and physical problems that make it hard to settle back into normal life. Leanring to deal with the stress and mental pictures can help them deal with the anxiety, anger and depression.

When the war in Iraq began it was hailed as the war with the lowest fatalities ever. But that has changed in the last few months. With fighting in Iraq now at its worst, the number of U.S. troops killed by enemy fire has reached the highest level since the Vietnam War.

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. But how do we honor those who survive and come back Stateside suffering from anxiety and other mental stress caused by their participation in the Iraq war?

Over the next few months, 130,000 American troops will return home from Iraq. Their arrival will bring joy to their families and gratitude from a nation. But many of them will find it hard to adjust back into ‘normal life.’ Not only does this place stress on the soldiers, it affects their friends, families and co-workers too.

“Coming home after the war I was elated to be home and with my family,” says Jay Burnham, a veteran of the first Gulf War in Iraq. “But it was not easy to settle back down to normal life.” Burnham suffered both physical and mental problems and found it very hard to adjust..

According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, released in 1990 by the Veterans Administration, roughly one-third of returnees from Vietnam suffered from anxiety and mental stress and there are many parallels being drawn between today's troops and veterans of the Gulf and Vietnam wars.

Returning soldiers re-experience their ordeal in the form of flashbacks, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma. They will have emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, suffer from depression, anxiety or outbursts of anger.

Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, immune system problems, dizziness, chest pain, or discomfort in other parts of the body are common.

Jay couldn’t shake off his experiences. He felt very angry and his emotions were extremely volatile. “I knew I could blow up at the smallest thing,” said Burnham. “All you had to do was look at me the wrong way and I wanted to wipe you out.”

He would be fine for a period of time and then, for no apparent reason, uncontrollable feelings of stress, anger and depression would set in. He also suffered headaches and had nightmares that disrupted his sleep.

“It’s so easy to do something crazy when you’re feeling like that,” says Jay. “I had no control over these emotions. Then it’s over, and you wonder what the heck was wrong with you. It’s very scary.”

Jay found help in a bookstore when he picked up Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and read it. For the first time he understood how his mental reactions were affecting him.

Written by researcher and humanitarian L Ron Hubbard in 1950 the book has been on bestseller lists ever since. Hubbard’s research showed that when we experience moments of pain, with some degree of unconsciousness – even a lessened awareness due to extreme emotional pain or stress - our analytical thought process is affected. We record these incidents in the ‘reactive’, or subconscious, mind and these images affect out thoughts and behavior later.

“It explained what I was experiencing,” says Burnham. “The book answered all my questions and gave me a way to deal with the images locked in my reactive mind that were causing my irrational emotions and thoughts. It was a real relief to be rid of them and feel happy again.”

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Sally Falkow