WASHINGTON -- More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation's veterans, according to a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The long conflicts, which have required many troops to deploy multiple times and operate under an almost constant threat of attack, have exacted a far more widespread emotional toll than previously recognized by most government studies and independent assessments: One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger -- two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.
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The veterans are often frustrated with the services provided to them by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Pentagon and other government agencies. Almost 60 percent say the VA is doing an "only fair" or "poor" job in addressing the problems faced by veterans, and half say the military is lagging in its efforts to help them transition to civilian life, which has been difficult for 50 percent of those who have left active service. Overall, nearly 1.5 million of those who served in the wars believe the needs of their fellow vets are not being met by the government.
"When I raised my right hand and said, 'I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America,' when I gave them everything I could, I expect the same in return," said Christopher Steavens, a former Army staff sergeant who was among 819 vets polled. He served in Iraq in 2003 and in Kuwait two years ago, where he was injured in a construction accident. Upon leaving the Army last summer, he filed a claim with the VA, seeking medical care and financial compensation. He has not yet received a response.
"It's ridiculous that I've been waiting seven months just to be examined by a doctor -- absolutely ridiculous," he said.
Even so, the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.
"What we did had a positive impact there," said Texas Army National Guard Sgt. David Moeller, who spent two year-long tours in Iraq. "I don't regret it. It's something I'd do over and over again."
Drawing upon detailed interviews with randomly selected war veterans across all military branches, including those still serving and those no longer in the military, the nationwide poll provides an unprecedented glimpse into the lives and attitudes of modern warriors -- an undrafted, all-volunteer cadre, most of whom signed up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That force, drawn from nearly every county in the nation and often sent on multiple year-long combat tours, has included more than 280,000 women and thousands of 18-year-olds.
Although more than 6,800 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, advancements in body armor, transportation and battlefield medicine gave troops a better chance of coming home than any other generation of war fighters.
"They have come back to a nation that has embraced them -- warmly, strongly, positively -- and put tremendous value and appreciation into their service," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview. "That is so important."
Many are thriving -- they are attending college, paid in full by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill; they are finding employers who covet their leadership skills and work ethic; they are receiving the medical attention they need. But the poll also found that hundreds of thousands of others feel they have been left behind on an uncharted postwar landscape, fighting for benefits, struggling to land a job, wrestling with psychological demons unleashed by combat or coping with shattered families.
Their responses reveal nuanced views of their lives, their service and their treatment by the government. Almost three in four believe the average American appreciates their service, but fewer -- only 52 percent -- like talking about their wartime experiences with casual acquaintances or strangers. Nearly 90 percent performed actions in Iraq or Afghanistan that made them feel proud, yet only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting.
"I don't find that to be in any way a contradiction of data," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. "I think that this aspect of service, and being true and trustworthy to the man or woman on your left or right, is probably what mostly drives the 90 percent figure. They're proud of what they did. They believe they did their job, and potentially the elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan didn't do theirs."
Some of their present-day challenges -- securing a well-paying career and coping with credit-card debt -- mirror travails of American society as a whole, but other needs are unique consequences of this century's conflicts: diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injury, acquiring technical skills to compete in a transforming economy and addressing the stress on families from repeated combat tours. More than 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have become partially or totally disabled from physical or psychological wounds are receiving lifelong financial support from the government, a figure that could grow substantially as new ailments are diagnosed and the VA processes a large claims backlog.
"What is different about this generation? We've asked them to do a lot more, in a smaller serving force, in some of the longest wars in our history," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in an interview. Multiple deployments have created what he calls "a compounding effect" to health problems and combat stress, with an unknown overall cost. "There's more work to be done in terms of research and understanding of what the full impact is going to be."