War and Peace of Mind: Helping America's Veterans
One day in 2005 Barbara V. Romberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist working near Washington, D.C., and her two young daughters drove by a roadside beggar. He wore a military uniform and held a placard reading HOMELESS VETERAN. CAN YOU HELP? Gracie, then 9, asked what the sign meant.
In deciding how to answer Gracie and little sister Mira, then 5, Dr. Romberg had an epiphany: "I realized that he probably needed help from a mental-health provider, and that I could make it possible for such professionals to get involved." She took action, founding the not-for-profit Give an Hour (GAH) and asking psychologists, psychiatrists, and family counselors across the country to donate sessions to veterans and their families.
One thousand volunteer providers have signed on since 2005, and the roster is still growing. "Whether people are for or against the war, they want to help," Dr. Romberg says. The professionals generally offer far more than 60 minutes. After an initial contact, the provider or GAH arranges for additional sessions or referrals, as needed. "Her program is outstanding," says U.S. Army Brigadier General (Ret.) Stephen N. Xenakis, MD.
"The military does what it can, but the number of people requesting mental-health help is overwhelming," explains Dr. Romberg. "I've heard that at some bases the wait is three months." During that time, says a 2007 American Psychological Association presidential task force, the soldier may lose interest in getting care. In the case of severe problems, the task force warns, "a treatment delay may have serious or even catastrophic results, including ... substance abuse and suicide."
The military mental-health system is under strain, says a 2007 Department of Defense report. The reasons include the difficulty of adapting a peacetime mental-health system to wartime and too few caregivers. In addition, today's signature combat injuries, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cause long-term psychological issues for soldiers, who then require extended treatment, says the Defense Department.
According to Dr. Xenakis, TBI is prevalent because soldiers in Iraq may be exposed to innumerable blasts from improvised explosive devices. In contrast, he says, typical wounds in past wars were the result of gunshots and were resolved more readily. PTSD is widespread, he says, because in this war, unlike past conflicts, there's no secure base in which soldiers can recuperate from the stress of missions. "They are always in a protective posture. They can only rest when they return home," Dr. Xenakis explains.