GREEN BAY - The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a mental toll on our veterans. More and more of those returning from war are being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more so than any other wars.
The stresses of war that linger in a veterans mind can be troublesome and debilitating.
Many relive traumatic events. Others avoid situations that might be a reminder of war. For others war has changed their outlook on life toward the negative, while the lingering stress has some unable to sleep or concentrate.
"I had insomnia, bad dreams, I was short fused with people, I would get in fights all the time," said Laurent Taillefer II, an Iraq War veteran with PTSD.
"I spent a year in a war zone, and people were trying to kill me, and I had to be prepared to kill other people, and I wasn't designed to do that, and it's okay. I'm not okay with that," said Sherie Warner, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD.
Taillefer and Warner are part of the Veterans Administration's public push to help identify and treat service men and women who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It is a condition that has been diagnosed in up to 30 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Veterans Administration. It is treated with counseling and medication.
And the number of veterans being diagnosed with PTSD continues to grow. It wasn't until after the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s that PTSD was even recognized as an actual psychiatric syndrome by the Veterans Administration.
"It's a big problem," said Denver Johnson, PhD., who heads up the mental health team at Green Bay's VA Clinic. For years he has witnessed the number of patients suffering from PTSD rise.
Nationwide from 2002 through 2012 more than 256,000 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have been treated for PTSD. And the numbers, Johnson says, continue to climb as time away from the war zone passes.
"We're starting to see the rate of diagnosed PTSD increase over time," said Johnson.
Dave Behrend from Northeast Wisconsin served in the Navy during Vietnam. He says while PTSD wasn't diagnosed back then, that doesn't mean it didn't exist.
"When we came out of our war and wars before that if you had issues bothering you you didn't say nothing because you had to go to the psychiatrist and you sucked it up, found a way to control it, hide it or dealt with it the best you could," said Behrend.
Many of Behrend's fellow veterans from Vietnam are receiving help now, adding to the numbers being diagnosed.
But the shock of war isn't the only thing triggering a rise in numbers.
In talking with health professionals, they tell FOX 11 On Special Assignment the poor economy over the last decade is also contributing to the growing number of claims being filed.
We asked specifically about the poor economy and high unemployment contributing to the numbers the VA is seeing for PTSD.
"I think that's fair to say, yes," said Johnson. "Those are stressors, any increased stress reduces one's overall ability to deal with stress."
And that is contributing to the rising medical costs associated with treating our veterans. The government estimates the treatment cost for those Iraq and Afghanistan veterans so far has topped $2 billion just for the treatment of PTSD.
Those numbers are a big part of the reason a new $60 million veterans clinic in Green Bay has opened its doors. The mental health staff alone has more than doubled from what it was, with 10 in the previous clinic to 21 today.
"There's been a growing need over the last several years, and especially with the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so as that need has grown we have responded by opening this new clinic," said Johnson.
Veterans from around Northeast Wisconsin are pleased with the expanded clinic, one of the largest VA outpatient clinics in the country. Many turned out for the ribbon cutting last week. But some veterans say the opening is long overdue.
"It has been a burden for a lot of veterans in the area because the VA didn't advance fast enough, they didn't build the clinic soon enough?" asked FOX 11's Mark Leland.
"It has been a major burden, and some will say I don't want to go all the way to Milwaukee for a simple blood test," said Behrend.
The new facility off University Avenue will now be able to treat roughly 95 percent of the medical claims being made by area veterans with a larger staff and more resources.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama spoke to disabled veterans at a conference in Florida making it clear more funding would be made available to better understand and treat PTSD.
"Prevent, diagnose and treat mental health conditions like TBI and PTSD and to get it done we're moving ahead with more than $100 million in new research," stated President Obama.
Johnson says the larger numbers of veterans seeking help for PTSD isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of better understand on the part of the medical community and the veterans themselves.
"It's not that the veterans need more care these days, we're recognizing at a greater depth what their needs are opening our doors I think," said Johnson.
And the greater understanding of PTSD is why the Veterans Administration continues to reach out through its AboutFace internet campaign. It shares the stories of not only the newest veterans with PTSD, but those who suffered quietly for decades in the hopes of getting treatment for all who need it.
"I never talked about it. I just tried to deal with my life, because you were supposed to be a man. Stop whining, do your thing, get a job, get married, you'll be alright. Well that's not what happens," said Richard Adams, a Vietnam Veteran with PTSD taking part in the VA's AboutFace campaign.
Last year, the old VA clinic in Green Bay treated about 1,500 veterans for mental health issues. Johnson expects that number to climb to 6,000 over the next several years.
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