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Veterans Can Be Helped by Talking About Killing


They say the act of killing is fundamental to war. It is also the one thing that many combat veterans avoid discussing when they return home. Whether out of shame, guilt or a deep fear of being misunderstood, many veterans do not talk about it creating mental health issues and suicide.

A new study of Iraq war veterans completed by researchers in San Francisco suggests that more discussion of killing may help veterans cope with an array of mental health problems stemming from war.

The study was published just last week found that soldiers who reported having killed in combat, or who gave orders that led to killing, were more likely to report the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, anger and relationship problems. The study was based on data from health assessments conducted on about 2,800 soldiers who returned from Iraq in 2005 and 2006.

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Shira Maguen who is a psychologist at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the leader of the study suggested that mental health professionals need to incorporate the act of killing into their assessments and treatment plans for veterans. She stated this would include finding ways to talk about the impact killing someone has on veterans to try to reduce guilt and shame.

The research discovered that of the 40 percent of the soldiers surveyed reported killing or being responsible for killing during deployment, 22 percent reported symptoms of stress disorder, 32 percent reported symptoms of depression and 25 percent met criteria for alcohol and drug abuse.

“People don’t understand the moral ambiguity of combat and why it is so hard to get over it,” said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “What makes combat veterans ill is not always about being a victim, but, in some instances, feeling very much both a perpetrator and a victim at the same time.”

Some experts said military law had complicated therapy by having unclear rules about when a soldier’s conversations with a therapist are protected from legal action. The mere threat that those conversations could be used in war crimes prosecutions discourages many troops and veterans from seeking counseling, those experts say.

Rules and regulations such as this make suicide the second leading cause of death for veterans. Hopefully, this new study will allow the military to allow veterans to freely talk about their experiences.