10% at hospital had mental problems
United Press International, Thursday 19 February 2004

LANDSTUHL - As many as 1 of every 10 soldiers from the war on terror evacuated to the Army's biggest hospital in Europe was sent there for mental problems.

Between 8 and 10 percent of nearly 12,000 soldiers from the war on terror, mostly from Iraq, treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany had "psychiatric or behavioral health issues," according to the commander of the hospital, Col. Rhonda Cornum.

That means about 1,000 soldiers were evacuated for mental problems.

The hospital has treated 11,754 soldiers from the war on terror, with 9,651 from Iraq and the rest from Afghanistan, according to data released by the hospital.

"We certainly have seen an average, I would say, of 8 to 10 percent of our casualties have some psychiatric or behavioral health issues for which they were evacuated," Cornum told United Press International in an interview at the hospital.

That number excludes soldiers who arrived at Landstuhl for physical injuries who also suffer from mental problems. It also excludes soldiers who do not realize they suffer from mental trauma until they returned to the United States.

A veterans' advocate called the data an "alarming" barometer of the psychological toll from the war in Iraq.

"It is an incredible sum and an alarming number," said Wayne Smith, an adviser to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Smith said the number reflects only a fraction of the mental toll from Iraq. He said soldiers need better help in Iraq and when they return. "This is a wake-up call," Smith said.

Cornum said she does not think the number of troops with mental problems is shocking.

"It has not seemed unusually high to me," Cornum said. "Most of them come with issues, depression or suicidal ideation based on some stress in their life that probably got exacerbated by going down range. If your family life is doing badly, deploying does not make it better."

Landstuhl, located just south of Ramstein Air Base, is the largest U.S. hospital outside the United States. It is the main transfer point and treatment center for soldiers medically evacuated from Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan on their way back to the United States.

Soldiers arriving from Iraq by plane at Ramstein are taken by bus up a winding road through the wooded hills overlooking the picturesque town of Landstuhl to the sprawling hospital complex.

An average of 35 soldiers each day arrive at Landstuhl -- though 160 patients arrived after the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad -- for treatment in eight operating rooms or to stay in the 148-bed facility. The nearly 2,000 medical staff includes an increase of 350 workers to help deal with soldiers from the war. Because Landstuhl is used, in part, to stabilize patients before sending them home, the average stay is just 4 days.

Cornum would not say how many soldiers from Iraq have required hospitalization in Landstuhl's 22-bed in-patient psychiatric facility. Twelve of those beds were occupied one day last week. Hospital data show that 2,489 of the soldiers who have arrived from Iraq have required some kind of in-patient medical care.

Cornum said no soldiers have committed suicide at Landstuhl, but said the hospital has treated soldiers after suicide attempts. She would not say how many and referred questions to the Pentagon.

"That is a sensitive thing that some people might not want you to know, I guess," Cornum said.

Among soldiers from Iraq with non-battle injuries, she said Landstuhl was mostly treating the same problems that happen at home: "The same things you see, you know, car wrecks and sports injuries. People fall down and break bones."

The Pentagon has said little about health trends among soldiers from Iraq, and Pentagon officials have made a range of statements about mental health issues including suicide.

On Jan. 14, William Winkenwerder Jr., undersecretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters that the number of confirmed Army suicides for Operation Iraqi Freedom was "on the high end of what they've seen in the past."

In a Jan. 28 speech, Pentagon Program Director for Mental Health Policy Army Col. Thomas J. Burke said deploying to Iraq was not causing an increase in suicide. "Are soldiers killing themselves in increased numbers due to deployment? No," Burke said. Burke said media reports about a high rate of suicides were "false."

In response to a growing suicide toll in Iraq, last July the Army surgeon general's office dispatched a team to investigate mental health issues there. The release of that team's report has been delayed several times.

The Pentagon report on suicides and mental health issues in Iraq apparently will reference what the Army has confirmed as at least 21 soldiers who have committed suicide in Iraq or Kuwait. The Pentagon is not counting deaths of soldiers who returned from Iraq and then committed suicide, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Martha Rudd.

At least three soldiers apparently have committed suicide in the United States after serving in Iraq. Two committed suicide at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., one last July and one in January. The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that 28-year-old Army Spc. Jeremy S. Seeley apparently committed suicide at the Shoney's Inn in Clarksville, Tenn., not far from the 101st Airborne Division's base at Fort Campbell, Ky. Police found antifreeze and Drain Pro by the bed. Autopsy results are incomplete.

Winkenwerder said the Pentagon does not see any significant trends among the data but has deployed nine combat stress teams for forces in Iraq and placed a psychologist, psychiatrist and social worker with each division.

Smith, the veterans' advocate, worked as a therapist at the Veterans Administration in the 1980s. He said new Pentagon programs to address war stress don't work for many soldiers.

"The military, sadly, will talk about the good things they are doing and the American people will largely believe that," Smith said. "But the sad truth is that is not the case. The military programs satisfy administrative procedures, but what gets lost in the shuffle is the soldier," Smith said.


refusing to kill