In latest Brookings Essay, Phil Klay discusses PTSD and the challenges veterans face returning to civilian life

June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. In the latest Brookings essay, National Book Award winner and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay explains the challenge veterans face reintegrating into civilian life, including reconciling their actions done in combat when they return home. Similarly, in a 2015 address to Brookings, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated, “Our troops are doing everything we ask of them and we must ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing everything we can for them?’ and the answer I say with profound sadness is ‘we are not’.” One of the ways that Sen. McCain suggests the United States can improve care for its veterans is by expanding the treatment available for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD as defined by The Mayo Clinic is a mental health condition that’s triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The PTSD Foundation of America reports that one in three returning troops are diagnosed with serious PTSD symptoms. Veterans with PTSD are more likely to be depressed, drink heavily, use drugs, and have trouble working and maintaining relationships. According to the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry, veterans of the Vietnam War who suffered from PTSD face twice as much substance abuse, divorce, and homelessness as veterans who did not have PTSD.

How many people are affected?

The number of veterans with PTSD is disproportionately higher than the number of people suffering in the population as a whole. The PTSD Foundation of American notes that, while around 7-8 percent of all Americans are currently living with PTSD, almost 31 percent of veterans are affected. The difficult circumstances that many veterans were exposed to during their service make them more susceptible to PTSD. From 9/11 to 2012, the number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD rose to a peak of 21,017, according to a Stateline report. Since then, the number has decreased to 16,012 in 2014 (the last year for which data are available). The likelihood of having PTSD is highly linked to the position or place a veteran served in. The PTSD Foundation of America estimates 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD over the course of their lifetimes. That’s significantly more than their estimates for those who served in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait (12 percent), Operation Iraqi Freedom (11 percent), and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (20 percent).

Suicide: More of a problem for veterans than civilians?

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. The U.S. Veterans Administration has studied the suicide rate among veterans, concluding that those who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between 2001-2007, in both deployed and non-deployed statuses, “had a significantly higher suicide risk compared to the U.S. general population.” One of these veterans is Clay Hunt, mentioned in Phil Klay’s essay. Clay was a Marine Corps veteran who, after returning his home, as Klay describes, “provided relief efforts with the veteran-led disaster response organization Team Rubicon in the wake of earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, raised money for wounded veterans, and helped lobby Congress for veterans’ benefits.” And yet, as Klay writes, Hunt “was never able to get the help he himself needed” after being diagnosed with PTSD, and took his own life in March 2011.

Read Klay’s essay, “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral risk and the modern military,” to learn more about the obligations he says veterans and civilians owe each other and themselves.