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Mental Health Center

Veterans' Health: Conditions and Stressors

An overview of what many veterans and their families experience after serving in war, including PTSD, traumatic brain injury, limb loss, and more.
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By Sonya Collins
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

“Behind our brave service men and women, there are family members and loved ones who share in their sacrifice and provide unending support,” President Obama said last November. 

Among these sacrifices are health conditions with which many service members and their families must cope long after the soldier has come home.

Limb Loss

Sgt. 1st Class (ret.) Norberto Lara was on a combat patrol in Iraq in June of 2004 when a grenade took off his right arm at the shoulder. Inhaling during the explosion, Lara’s lungs were severely burned; shrapnel lacerated his liver.

As of January, 1,525 troops had lost a limb in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. They must relearn the most basic tasks either using a prosthesis or without the limb altogether.

Though Lara had both his legs, he struggled to walk straight. His center of gravity had shifted.

Marci Covington, who is a physical therapist at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, tells WebMD that learning to bathe, dress, and eat and to walk on different terrains is not as difficult as the emotional challenges.

“It’s sometimes challenging for patients to understand that they will be functional and have a good quality of life,” she says.

Lara agrees, “You think you’re never going to get better and that you’re going to stay in the hospital forever.”

Some studies show nearly one in three amputees, regardless of military service, suffers from depression, while one in 10 Americans in the general population does. Amputees struggle with decreased mobility and independence and poor body image.

Lara, extremely self-conscious about his changed appearance, only wore his prosthetic arm in public because he feared people’s reactions otherwise.“When my friends told me they accept me either way, I stopped wearing it altogether in public," he says.

Paralysis

Spinal injuries can cause visible loss of limb function and loss of bowel or bladder control or sexual function and result in dependence on caregivers. 

Kim Whitmoyer, LCSW, who is coordinator of spinal cord injuries at the VA Medical Center in Atlanta, tells WebMD that rehabilitation involves the entire family. As with limb loss, emotional challenges can be the greatest. 

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