CHICAGO — Nearly one in 10 American soldiers who served in Iraq were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, most after witnessing death or participating in combat, according to a Pentagon study that could add fodder to a budget battle in Congress over veterans' health care.
Overall, the study found more than a third of U.S. soldiers received psychological counseling soon after returning from Iraq.
Nineteenpercent met the military’s “risk criteria for a mental health concern” such as post-traumatic stress or depression. That's compared to 11.3 percent among veterans who served in Afghanistan and 8.5 percent from deployments elsewhere, the report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association said.
The survey covered 222,620 Army soldiers and Marines returning
from Iraq, 16,318 from Afghanistan and 64,967 from other deployments.
The researchers did not find the results surprising, because the military has a new mental health screening program for returning soldiers and is encouraging them to get help early to prevent serious problems later, said study co-author Dr. Charles Hoge, a colonel at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Because of the new screening program, the findings cannot be compared to those from previous wars, Hoge said.
Mental health screening of veterans showed 21,620 out of 222,620 returning from Iraq and assessed over the year ending April 30, 2004, suffered from post-traumatic stress -- a disorder that can lead to nightmares, flashbacks and delusional thinking.
Of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, 80 percent said they had witnessed people being killed or wounded or had participated in combat and fired their weapon, the report said. Of those not diagnosed, half had experienced violence or combat.
Medical authorities first accepted post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric condition in 1980 at the urging of Vietnam veterans. A previous study by Hoge and his colleagues found 15 percent to 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq showed signs of the disorder, and many were reluctant to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related mental problems can lead to family strife, divorce, alcohol and substance abuse, and unemployment.
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Veterans' advocates said the finding supports their call for increased spending on mental health care for Iraq veterans.
President Bush's budget plan includes a 6 percent increase in spending for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But some in Congress say that is not enough because the increase hinges on more than $1 billion in cuts in other VA spending and the approval of new fees and co-payments for some veterans.
"This budget would ultimately shortchange veterans who need mental health services," said Ralph Ibson, a vice president of the National Mental Health Association. "This study can and should be a wake-up call in terms of veterans' mental health needs."
Shortly after starting the ground war in Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon began requiring returning service members to complete a three-page survey that is used to decide who needs further help.
In prior wars, mental health issues weren't studied until years, sometimes decades, after the soldiers came back," Hoge said. "For this war, we're doing it differently. Research is influencing policy and we're adjusting policies as the data come in."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.