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Soldiers Face Stigma When Seeking Mental Health Care

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The U.S. military prides itself on offering enlistees a wide array of mental health services. But some returning soldiers from Iraq say getting help on base is tough because there’s no privacy and the stigma of even seeking therapy remains. KPBS reporter Amita Sharma has more.

The common refrain from Iraqi war veterans is that once they return home, things are never as they were before they left. Many, after two or three tours of duty, find themselves depressed, angry, unable to focus …some are suicidal. That makes integrating back into their families -- especially into relationships with spouses -- hard.

Take Mark Garcia. The 29-year-old Navy corpsman served in Iraq twice. While there, he saw the horrors of war: firefights, dismembered bombing victims and dying children. The images left scars. When Garcia came back from Iraq the second time, he felt distant from his wife.

Mark Garcia : I just feel like you kind of learn how to put yourself in a box. I mean it’s not very intimate. My kids … I can hug them and squeeze them but with my wife, I don’t know how to be intimate anymore. It’s like I don’t even like to be touched or held on to or counted on, you know.

Garcia and his wife Fran just started going to couples therapy this week. San Diego psycho therapist David Peters says Iraqi war veterans often show up at his office for marriage counseling. Peters says they won’t seek individual therapy on base because there’s no confidentiality and they’re afraid getting help will be a career ender.

David Peters : What they tell me is that they’ll be treated differently and what they tell me is, often they’re neglected. I’ve had many occasions where a soldier has told me his C.O. [Commanding Officer] told him to go out and go drinking when he told his C.O., "I need some help," and they don’t really enter into the mental health segment of the military unless it’s so bad that someone drags them in. So they don’t know what recommendations they’re going to get in the mental health program because they don’t trust it.

Military officials in San Diego referred questions about mental health services to Washington D.C. But our phone calls were not returned. Peters says a national policy change is needed to ensure that once veterans return from the frontlines in Iraq, they have a safe place to express how they feel about what they experienced.

Peters: Whatever happens has to allow the soldiers to talk honestly in a safe place with no repercussions and i can only imagine that happening if they allow access to mental health services outside the military.

That’s already happening but more surreptitiously. It’s widely known in the therapist community that many war veterans are being treated by non-military therapists, but the treatment is being billed under their wives’ insurance.

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