PTSD, burn pits, unemployment, suicide risk: Veterans battling myriad challenges

PTSD: Anthony Vidales, 27, a retired Marine and former Iraq vet, looks at his photography work on his bed in Upland, Calif. Vidales is struggling to get work and has been using photography to try to sort out his PTSD. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

Anthony Vidales, 27, a retired Marine and former Iraq vet, looks at his photography work on his bed in Upland, Calif. Vidales is struggling to get work and has been using photography to try to sort out his PTSD. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

When Anthony Vidales walked out of a lie detector test as part of his application process at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department earlier this month, he wanted to cry.

He failed the test, he said, due to irregular breathing, a condition he contracted from radiation, pollution and burn pits he was exposed to while fighting in Iraq.

“They told me come back with a doctor’s note, and I’m going to do it. But I’m not stupid,” he said. “I’m pretty sure my application process is over, or at least my application is being moved to the bottom of the pile.”

Vidales, 27, has what he considers to be a major liability on his resume — an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marines.

Vidales is part of a population that, according to some estimates, makes up 20 percent of all suicides, suffers from high rates of unemployment and has generally high death rates.

Recent studies from the Department of Defense and other sources highlight the difficulties of military life. Active-duty suicides dramatically peaked last year, according to research released this month. More members of the armed services die from suicide than from combat, the report found.

Veterans do even worse, according to advocacy groups. They often come home to broken relationships, bleak job prospects and a lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to the theater of war.

Stereotyping veterans.  Vidales, who lives in Upland and grew up in East Los Angeles, Montebello and other Southland communities, says he has not found a decent job since he returned from combat last year.

PTSD: Anthony Vidales, 27, a retired Marine and veteran of Iraq, displays  his photography work. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

Anthony Vidales, 27, a retired Marine and veteran of Iraq, displays his photography work. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

He has turned to photography, his dog and his family for support and clarity while he studies at Citrus College in Glendora.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” he said. “There is a really negative stereotype about veterans. I see it every day.”

The work available to veterans tends to be entry-level jobs, according to several experts and recent studies from advocacy groups, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is 10.8 percent for veterans compared with 7.8 percent for the general population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for veterans has been steadily dropping, in part due to government efforts to educate veterans and also because companies such as Walmart have committed to hiring veterans.

Unappreciated skills. Vidales served in the Marines in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and again in 2007, and said combat stress was severe.

He was an assistant platoon leader whose main duty was coordinating communication between Iraqis and his unit, he said.

His field interview notes and data were so accurate and informative, they were used for more than a year by other Marines after he left the Iraqi communities where the notes were generated, he said.

“When I went back for another tour, they were still using my notes from my first tour,” he said.

Vidales said he’s frustrated that his skills from Iraq seem to have almost no value to employers back home. The only jobs available so far are minimum wage security positions.

The liability of ‘battlemind.’ And the trouble doesn’t stop with poor job prospects, experts said.

East Los Angeles-based Veterans Affairs mental health counselor Manuel Martinez said warriors come home with “battlemind,” a set of behaviors and thoughts that are useful during war but that can become a liability at home.

Put simply, soldiers facing death are constantly paying attention to every tiny detail of their surroundings. They need to learn to relax and think through their decisions.

“In combat, you develop certain skills in a combat zone, but those skills are a liability in the United States,” Martinez said. “With our population, we’re seeing legal problems, a lot of relationship problems, a lot of isolating, which is another risk factor.”

And veterans also seem to be involved in riskier behavior than the general population.

Although state-by-state data are hard to track, there are strong indicators that veterans trained to drive fast and aggressively at war are driving the same way at home and dying.

Death in a personal vehicle is a leading cause of death for active members of the military, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress.

After trauma, PTSD. Former warriors also must deal with the emotional and physical trauma of bomb blasts and bullets.

About one out of six veterans has post traumatic stress disorder, a rate attributed to the long tours of duty common to the post-9/11 wars.

Vidales said he definitely has post traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m one of the few veterans who admit I have PTSD,” he said. “I know I have it. I am diagnosed. I treat it. I work to control it. I go above and beyond to control this disorder.”

He knows the four letters — PTSD — scare employers.

He and other veterans said many employers don’t understand that PTSD is a treatable condition.

A few types of therapy show promising outcomes, and former warriors, such as Vidales, show no signs of their trauma.

A better welcome home. Citrus College history professor and veteran advocate Bruce Solheim said the United States is getting serious about making sure veterans fare better when they come home.

He said it is up to the public to welcome home veterans and to make sure they are faring well.

“I mean, these men and women are coming back to really hard situations,” he said. “Some of them aren’t even welcome with their own families. Their parents downsized their homes, and they really don’t want them moving back in.”

Vidales said he is confident he will find work. But he said the grind of looking for a job is discouraging.

“It’s worse than one thing after another,” he said. “For a lot of us, we’re bombarded with things coming from all directions, whether it be jobs, what happened during the wars, our relationships. And you have to deal with everything at once.”

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