Letters to the Editor

A different type of war wound

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times.

The nature of the wars U.S. troops are fighting has changed, and so too have the wounds of war. The government finally caught up with this reality in one way on Monday when it announced new rules making it easier for veterans to claim federal benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Previously, vets had to prove that a single combat experience caused their PTSD, but now they may demonstrate that persistent danger and violence may have brought it on.

This is a potentially important development for the more than 2 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly so for women, who officially are not assigned to combat roles but in reality often find themselves in the midst of combat. The old rules may have worked in conventional conflicts such as World War II and the Korean War, with clear front lines and combatants in uniform, back when most of the wounded died of their battlefield injuries. Or maybe not, since little was known of PTSD then, and society expected soldiers to tough out their troubles in silence.

But combat began to change for the American military in Vietnam, and now we know more about its effects.

Today's wars may be fought anywhere at any time, against enemies who might wear civilian dress and suicide belts. Pilots and infantry face danger as before, but increasingly so do cooks, truck drivers, intelligence officers and other personnel who are perhaps serving their fourth or fifth tours.

Furthermore, soldiers can make it from Baghdad to the front door back home in as little as 72 hours, sometimes a disturbingly quick transition from life-or-death issues to seemingly mundane civilian concerns.

Many return with the symptoms of PTSD - recurrent and intrusive recollections of the war, leading to personality changes, emotional numbing and withdrawal, and often to other problems including drinking, drug abuse and violent behavior.

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events develops the disorder, and those who claim benefits under the new rules still must have a diagnosis from a Veterans Administration doctor, which is why we believe fears that fraud will skyrocket are unfounded.

Undoubtedly claims will continue to rise.

Thanks to modern medicine, there is a 90 percent survival rate for battlefield injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning more people are coming home wounded. A RAND Corp. study estimates that 20 percent of returning military personnel suffer from PTSD.

We know they need help, and that help costs money - which is no reason to deny them the help they deserve.