BRECKSVILLE, Ohio - The Iraq war veterans gathered at a suburban Cleveland medical center may be miles away from the battle fields, but many are still fighting.
Upon returning home, many are daunted by the task of rebuilding their lives. It's a constant struggle against sleeplessness, anxiety, anger, isolation and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they are finding ways to heal themselves through the Department of Veterans Affairs' new and expanded mental health services.
The VA says it is more prepared to deal with returning veterans than it was after Vietnam, when an estimated 17.5 percent of veterans returned with mental or emotional problems. The agency has more than 160 programs for the treatment of PTSD and a $29 million dollar budget to provide services for military men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we don't get intervention within the first five years, the veteran is set up for a lifetime of problems," John Wilson, a psychology professor at Cleveland State University, told
The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
for story published Sunday.
Wilson helped the VA design its first counseling program in the late 1970s. Now all veterans undergo a required post-deployment screening program, including a mental health assessment.
The VA operates two medical health centers in the Cleveland area and 12 outpatient clinics in northern Ohio. The center in Brecksville offers group and individual counseling, along with family therapy. It is one of seven VA centers with a women's stress disorder treatment team.
In group counseling sessions, therapist Michael Orticari urges veterans to share their experiences and learn from others.
"There's no magic potion. We just talk about it. Somehow getting it out and sharing it is cathartic," Orticari said.
Despite expanded services and better screening, some critics still wonder if the VA is prepared to deal with an influx of veterans coming home after multiple deployments in the Middle East. Larry Scott, who founded a Web site, VAwatchdog.org, scrutinizing the agency, said that while the system has improved greatly, he worries the VA is still too understaffed and underfunded.
Wilson agreed there is cause for concern since repeated deployments can take an even greater mental toll on soldiers.
"Iraq is a nonstop, 24-seven, hostile environment, so what happens is that these guys are incredibly wired all the time," he said. "One of the things we learned from Vietnam is that once that hyper arousal response develops, it doesn't go off."
When he returned from Iraq, Aaron Reedy of Willoughby felt anger simmering inside, awoke with terrifying nightmares and couldn't shake the images he encountered during combat. He signed up for a 10-week group therapy course, which he recently completed with six other veterans.
Reedy says he has a newfound confidence in his ability to thrive in the civilian world.
"It's like having a relationship with society again," he said. "The military is like one big family, and it's nice to know the family hasn't abandoned you."