Middle East war veterans endure invisible injuries
Realizing he could die at any time changed Konrad Schlarbaum forever.
The Central High School graduate was deployed with the U.S. Army south of Baghdad from August 2006 until November 2007 as part of the war in Iraq.
What the former communications specialist lived through during his 15-month deployment in Iraq followed him home to Grand Junction. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t focus. He is angry.
“I was a social outcast when I came back from Iraq,” said Schlarbaum, 24. “I found it hard to relate to anybody.”
The Mesa State College sophomore represents the new veteran that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will serve in the decades ahead. Many are physically disabled. Others, like Schlarbaum, have no physical injuries, but are mentally scarred. Most are younger than 30 and have to find civilian employment and/or go to college.
Admittedly, VA employees and physicians nationwide, including the people who work with veterans at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center, are still learning about the mental health issues related to combat.
Thomas Ziemann is a polytraumatic case manager for veterans with multiple injuries from the Global War on Terror, a military umbrella term for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and smaller military operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and the Trans Sahara.
Ziemann works at the vets’ hospital on North Avenue. He has nearly 80 clients. He is learning more about how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, affect veterans.
PTSD is a mental disorder that has received much attention since it was diagnosed in Vietnam veterans nearly 30 years ago.
TBIs are an increasing concern, where servicemen and women struggle with balance, anger, and how to process visual and auditory information, Ziemann said.
Traumatic brain injuries are the “signature” wound of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Congress created the center in 1992 during the Persian Gulf War.
The frequent use of roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq has contributed to the increase of TBIs.
“These are folks who walk and talk fine but have subtle changes in the way their brain operates,” Ziemann added, describing PTSD and TBIs.
An estimated 20 percent, or 300,000, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars received a traumatic brain injury during deployment, according to a study posted in August by the VA’s Health Services Research & Development Service.
The same study reported that screening data from Operation Iraqi Freedom soldiers, such as Schlarbaum, suggest that some 17 percent of active duty soldiers and 25 percent of reserve soldiers may have PTSD three to six months post-deployment.
“I almost would say everyone has some form of PTSD coming out of Iraq,” Schlarbaum said.
Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003. The eight-year anniversary of NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan is Wednesday. The invasion was prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
The events of 9/11 were one reason Schlarbaum joined the Army. His service to his country, however, has made it difficult for him to live in it.
In an effort to help other veterans at Mesa State, Schlarbaum started the Mesa State Veterans Club this fall. The impetus to create the campus group came during a meeting at the vets’ hospital this past summer. The hospital held the meeting to ask veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom what the VA needed to do to meet the veterans’ needs.
Most of the complaints from the 12 veterans who attended the meeting related to not knowing who to talk to about benefits and what services were available.
Schlarbaum decided veterans like him could benefit from an informational and supportive group.
“When you discharge from active duty, you go through a process of trying to integrate into civilian life,” he said.
One local man strongly encouraged veterans to turn to the VA to ask questions about every benefit available. Trusting the government is difficult after combat, said Vietnam veteran Jake Faverman, 59.
But servicemen and women have to ask questions and do research to learn about help available.
Faverman has lived with PTSD since returning from Vietnam in 1969. He was diagnosed in 1983 after filling out a questionnaire at the local Vietnam Outreach Center at 28 1/2 Road, which is no longer open.
Before his diagnosis and subsequent ongoing treatment, Faverman had nightmares, sweating so bad he had to change his bedsheets, and flashbacks during daylight hours when he stood in the shower but thought it was the jungle, with monkeys and mud.
He still struggles with some lingering effects of war, but counseling and medication have helped, he said.
Faverman and Schlarbaum believe civilians can’t relate to the war experience, but the public has a role to play in helping veterans adjust to American society and helping the government learn more about related health issues.
Veterans with PTSD are wired differently, Faverman said.
It doesn’t make them crazy. It makes them different.
“Grow to understand us,” Schlarbaum said. “I’ve grown to understand my problems.”