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Aggressive help is needed for veterans

Suicide becomes a real risk for returning soldiers and veterans from earlier wars

When a soldier returns home safely after a long tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, his or her relatives are simply relieved to have their loved one back alive.

But that relief could be something of an illusion: The dangers lurking here at home - due to scarred psyches - can be as real and deadly as those found in the war zones overseas.

As reported in today's Review, Oregon's returning servicemen and women are more likely to die of suicide than from action overseas. In fact, Oregon veterans of all wars are killing themselves at alarming rates when compared with the rest of the population.

Several factors contribute to this trend:

n For soldiers involved in the current wars, the length of deployment - up to 15 months - is greater than other modern wars. That fact - plus the constant state of hyper-vigilance that must be maintained in this type of war - can leave soldiers with shattered nerves.

n The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are being fought with heavy use of National Guard and Reserve troops. These citizen soldiers did not necessarily have an expectation that they would be involved in violent conflicts. And when they return home, they don't come back to a military base that's equipped to handle post-combat issues. Instead, they are immediately reintegrated into their families and communities.

n For older veterans, the images of the current conflicts are reigniting memories - especially of the Vietnam War - and triggering more cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the reasons for the rising cases of suicide are becoming better understood, we don't believe there is yet enough awareness - and certainly, not enough help - for war veterans who are at risk of suicide. These servicemen and women performed their duties at the request of the government and for the benefit of all Americans.

That means everyone, but especially the federal government, should feel a responsibility to take more aggressive action to prevent veteran suicides. An important first step is to increase public awareness of the issue.

Veterans' families in particular should be alerted to the warning signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And they should be educated about counseling and other resources that are available for veterans.

The Veterans Administration bureaucracy that's supposed to assist veterans coming home from war has been under intense scrutiny the past few years for its inability to deliver health care and its slowness in addressing issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems. Certainly, those criticisms of the VA have a direct bearing on the issue of suicide.

The need for our government institutions to do a better job will only grow into the future. Vietnam veterans are reaching an age when they are at even greater risk. For the past four decades, they've been busy with life - raising children and working. Now that they are approaching retirement, experts warn they may begin dwelling on their war experiences once again.

The psychological trauma of war isn't a temporary condition that diminishes with time. It is an ongoing threat to mental stability that can reappear decades later - and that requires ongoing and assertive programs for prevention.