Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan wars flood Truman Hospital

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Photo by Soo Ji Lee/MUJW

Private First Class Jamil Powell, who served in Iraq, prepares to scan hospital supplies as supply technician at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veteran's Hospital in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Jamil Powell recalls looking into the faces of Afghan locals who did not want him in their village. The former Army medic treated civilians as well as soldiers during a year in the eastern tip of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. He knew how they felt.

“There were times I wish I wasn’t there,” he said.

Powell, now a supply technician at the Truman Veterans Hospital, is one of about 1.3 million U.S. veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom are flooding through federal facilities seeking care for combat-related injuries. The two conflicts since Sept. 11, 2001, have contributed a higher percentage of veterans — 52 percent — who obtained medical care through the VA than any other American war has.

“It’s never been that high,” said Stephen Gaither, the public affairs officer at the VA center.

From October 2010 to March of this year alone, more than 400,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have used VA care nationwide. Out of these veterans’ combat-related conditions, 51 percent of the diagnoses were related to mental disorders. In the past 10 years, 187,133 veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since October 2010, 2,501 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought help at Truman Hospital through the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Care Management program. Similar programs exist in St. Louis, Kansas City and Poplar Bluff, where there are other veteran’s hospitals in the state.

Powell said he is grateful that his fellow comrades are coming back to U.S. soil, though many of them may require years of care.

“Thank God, I hope they pull them all out,” he said.

Mid-Missouri’s recent war veterans are in good hands — in fact, they’re in the hands of fellow veteran and project manager Stacey Dennis. Dennis, a sargeant who served in Vilseck, Germany, and later at Fort Bragg in N.C., serves as a listener and caretaker for them. Her husband, Sgt. Curtis Dennis, is also a veteran, having served in Afghanistan.

Dennis has been program manager since 2007, primarily educating veterans about their health benefits. Combat-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) qualify veterans for five years of free medical care.

“Often times soldiers don’t process their experiences while in combat until after they return home,” Dennis said. “You’re over there with one thing in mind — to complete your mission and get back alive.”

Powell, whose battlefield injuries include PTSD and tinnitus (ringing in the ears), still has nightmares about his experience and remembers the often traumatic injuries of his patients, especially those of a 4-year-old Afghani girl. She received third-degree burns from the top of her thigh down to her foot, and Powell was reminded of his two little girls at home. He plans to wait to tell war stories to his daughters — both now 3 — until they are older.

Like Powell, Sgt. First Class Brett Green suffered from PTSD. Unlike Powell, Green, a mid-Missouri native, did not seek counseling or medicine for his condition. A bomb squad technician, Green spent three years in Iraq after the initial U.S. invasion and a year in Afghanistan.

“I still have bad dreams. I hate it. I don’t like hearing shots I don’t know where they’re coming from,” said Green, who also has frequent neck pain and a long-standing knee injury.

“When you put on a 85-pound bomb suit, you’re bound to run into some injuries,” he said.

Green, who is still active-duty military at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., said medical technology has rapidly advanced since 2001, especially in fields such as prosthetics and neurology.

“Evolution of medicine care really focused … in the last 10 years,” he said. “The medical community has really got a jump start with the war. Now they have the funding and public attention they didn’t have before.”

Grant O’Neal, team leader of Truman Hospital’s PTSD clinical team, agreed, saying the public awareness about combat-related injuries has risen. A condition only validated in 1980 in the American Psychological Association’s third manual, PTSD is widely reported on by the media.

“We are psychologically astute as a nation in this point in time,” he said.

A third of the veterans O’Neal counsels served in Afghanistan and Iraq. In comparison with veterans of previous conflicts such as Vietnam, “the trauma and symptoms are more fresh,” he said. The three most prevalent secondary conditions in these cases are depression, substance abuse and traumatic brain injuries.

O’Neal also points to the advance of technology in military garments, including helmets. In previous conflicts, explosives killed more people; now more veterans are returning alive, but at a cost: severe injuries that might require years of care.

“Protective gear helps them in that they may have been killed before. Now they’re more likely to have TBI,” O’Neal said.

Traumatic brain injuries occur through “blast overpressure.” Blast overpressure is when a bomb goes off near a vehicle or another object and air pressure increases, resulting in shell

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shock. Former Sgt. James Dolph, once an army medic in Iraq’s Diyala province, believes that not all returning soldiers are screened properly for TBI and stress disorder.

“It’s not in the best interest of the people in authority to look at every little detail,” he said. “A lot of times PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and a lot of medical records are incomplete or not treated at all

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due to the fact that the post-deployment briefing is done too rapidly.”

Dolph, now a medical support assistant in Truman Hospital’s cardiology department, recalled sustaining the lives of his friends who suffered bomb explosions.

“They aged 10 years older overnight,” he said.