The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Life

November 9, 2010

For some vets, battles don't end

DANVILLE — Some veterans will spend Thursday marching in Veterans Day parades and taking part in flag ceremonies while others might say a prayer and give thanks for those who made it home safely.

But in many unfortunate cases, soldiers come home with deep and lasting wounds to their mental health, according to Joseph Boscarino, an epidemiologist, social psychologist and Vietnam veteran at Geisinger Medical Center.

Often, conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder leave veterans just as disabled as those who suffered physical injury.

This was the case with Boscarino's identical twin brother, who also was a Vietnam veteran and was left disabled following the Battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

In his research, Boscarino has found that Vietnam veterans who have gone decades with no treatment suffer the most from PTSD — leaving many permanently disabled.

To provide a comparison, Boscarino said, "Going to combat week after week would be like experiencing Columbine every day and receiving no treatment."

He estimated that as many as 15 percent of returning war veterans, and likely more, will be diagnosed with PTSD. Those suffering with PTSD experience symptoms such as anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks for more than a month.

Symptoms could begin immediately after the traumatic event. Others may not show signs until decades later.

When this happens, there is typically an event that triggers the PTSD.

"They start re-experiencing events in their mind," said Boscarino. "They could develop avoidance or amnesia of the event, or they could begin to experience nightmares."

A major triggering event for many veterans was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This event was so traumatic," he said.

A number of individuals who were in combat experienced a delayed reaction," he said.

Recovery from PTSD is a gradual process, but there are many things those with the condition can do to cope with residual symptoms and reduce anxiety and fear.

Common treatments for PTSD include trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, which involves carefully and gradually exposing thoughts, feelings and situations that are the reminders of the trauma, as well as family therapy and medication to relieve secondary symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Boscarino is leading a team of molecular biologists and genetic investigators to uncover a genetic link between PTSD and subsequent psychopathology. Such a discovery would make it possible to predict an individual's likelihood of developing PTSD following exposure to a traumatic event such as battle, providing a target for new treatments and a better way of screening military inductees.

Other factors that could play in to whether a person develops PTSD are personality traits and left- or mixed-handedness.

Boscarino believes his research will provide a better understanding to why nearly one in five people suffers from PTSD following exposure to a major traumatic event.

— E-mail comments to ethompson@dailyitem.com.

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