Invisible Wounds of War is a recently released RAND study of American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their psychological and cognitive injuries, the consequences of those injuries, and services available to assist recovery for the troops. That publication and the research behind it were the subject of a RAND Policy Forum on Thursday, June 12, at the company’s headquarters on Main Street across from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Joining RAND’s Lisa Jaycox and Terri Tanielian, who were the team leaders on the study, were Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Fred Gusman, executive director of the California Transition Center for Care of Combat Veterans, a private nonprofit organization.
The panel and the study focused on three invisible wounds – post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and traumatic brain injury – which affect 30 percent of the returning troops. Lisa Jaycox, a behavioral scientist and clinical psychologist, explained that body armor and medical advances have resulted in more soldiers coming home from these wars than in previous times. The levels of these invisible wounds among the returning troops are higher than in the civilian population, she said, although it is difficult to compare them with previous wars because the diagnoses are much more sophisticated today.
Rieckhoff said that untreated mental health injuries and conditions have an overflow impact on the larger society, citing cases of domestic abuse, divorce, and suicide among members of the infantry company he commanded in Iraq. He argued strongly for a new GI bill, similar to what was available for World War II veterans, to help current vets re-integrate into society.
Terri Tanielian, co-director of RAND’s Center for Military Health Policy Research, said that proper treatment of the invisible wounds of war would require the country to address the shortages and problems in the entire U.S. mental health system. Her research shows that while this is an expensive undertaking, it also shows that investment now will result in reduced costs after two years.
In response to questions from the audience of about 200, Rieckhoff said that his experience was that the American public treated returning veterans well regardless of the public’s position on the war itself. “That is a lesson we have learned,” he said, referring to the treatment of Vietnam veterans in the 1960s and 1970s.
After questions and comments from the audience, moderator Jaycox asked each of the panelists what would be the first thing they would do if they were president. Gusman said that he would recognize that the invisible wounds were a public health issue and therefore mobilize public and private resources across the board to address the problem.
“Make every day Veterans Day,” was Rieckhoff’s initial response to the question, and he then added that the other first things he would do were fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and appoint Tammy Duckworth to run the VA.