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Many Iraq War Vets Suffer After Effects

Above: Marines prepare for deployment as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first major deployment of U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan.

Audio

Aired 9/21/09

More than 250,000 veterans live in San Diego County. Many of them are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. KPBS reporter Alison St John spoke with Karen Scheonfeld Smith, chief counselor at the Veterans Center about the growing number of veterans coming to her with fresh, raw symptoms that affect their everyday lives.

SPECIAL REPORT

War Comes Home

Video
Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS Reporter Alison St John, who produced the series War Comes Home, talks about special challenges faced by military families in San Diego.

More than 250,000 veterans live in San Diego County. Many of them are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. KPBS reporter Alison St John spoke with Karen Scheonfeld Smith, chief counselor at the Veterans Center about the growing number of veterans coming to her with fresh, raw symptoms that affect their everyday lives.

Alison St. John: What does that mean, are they experiencing life very differently from the community around them?

Karen Schoenfeld Smith: In some ways, yes. A lot of our veterans, who served in Iraq, probably a little less so than in Afghanistan, are doing a lot of urban warfare. So our veterans are coming back with all kinds of vigilance around driving and moving around in urban areas. And San Diego is primarily urban and we have a lot of traveling by car.

St. John: So, what you are saying is that in previous wars they might have been in the jungle and when they come back the environment is so different, but now it's kind of similar. There's a lot of similarities and it's triggering emotions.

Schoenfeld Smith: Very much so. What we have previously seen a lot of, with our Vietnam Veterans that served in the jungle, there's a lot of a difficulty with tree lines. Sometimes we have people who are talking about playing golf and they are uncomfortable playing at holes where there's a pretty solid tree line near it. And with our veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming back and having challenges with monitoring rooftops, monitoring windows, responding to noises, sounds. Fortunately, our cars don't backfire nearly as much as they did in the 60s and 70s. So, that's helpful. Or, stopped in traffic and feeling anxious about not being able to move. Responding very significantly when there's a car crash near them, wondering what's happening and feeling very anxious and wondering what if there was an IED and suddenly, perhaps, having a flashback. Or, they end up getting some speeding tickets, and that challenges them.

St. John: Can you be specific about why they would get speeding tickets.

Schoenfeld Smith: There's two things. One, getting from one place to another, the faster you can do that, the more likely you and your colleagues are to survive. And the other thing has to do with, it's exciting to go fast. And, when sometimes people have experienced trauma, they become desiring of that increased awareness and aliveness that comes from speeding. It draws them away from worrying about the past, worrying about the future and they're in the moment. And, that can be very seductive for them.

St. John: One veteran that I spoke to said he couldn't go to a Padres game anymore, because he just couldn’t be surrounded by that many people.

Schoenfeld Smith: When there are a lot of crowds, the exits are sometimes difficult to access and that can be very challenging. So, people who have been in situations in which you need to evacuate quickly because it suddenly become dangerous, really feel uncomfortable with the exits being somehow inaccessible.

St. John: So, you are talking about the stress that an individual feels, but what about the stress on a family, on a marriage?

Schoenfeld Smith: It's a different kind of stress than it was in Vietnam and World War II. Typically, then, there was one, maybe two deployments. In World War II, there was one deployment. Once you were done, you didn't have to go again and there was a limited way of communicating. It was all by regular postal mail. And now we have lots of email communication, satellite communication, there's ways to video conference. So, those who are deployed, we have easy access to, sometimes that means more shared communication about daily activities. Car breaks down; I'm having a hard time in school, so there's a little bit more support, but a little bit more involvement with each others' lives, and that can be painful when you can't be together. There's also a lot of multiple deployments. It's hard to integrate somebody back into the family when you're not sure how long you're going to be there. You come back, are you a guest in the home? Are you an integrated family member? Are you there to pick up the slack that we weren't able to take care of when you were gone? So there's all kinds of role expectations and successful families do really well with that and others don't.

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