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Psychological toll of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq mounts as veterans return home

By Shoshana Guy
Rock Center

Sergeant Louis Loftus first noticed something was wrong when a simple picture brought him to tears.

“I came home on mid-tour leave and I was showing some family members pictures of my deployment,” said the veteran, 24, who served in Afghanistan.  “And just from seeing a picture that reminded me of something where someone had been killed...right there I just started crying.”

By the time he was home from his second deployment he was plagued by a sleep disorder and nightmares, followed by anxiety and the impulse to isolate himself from his loved ones. Eventually he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some 2.4 million soldiers have been through Iraq and Afghanistan and the psychological toll of the wars is mounting. Last year the Veterans Administration treated almost 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for PTSD. But many agree that the numbers could be higher because not everyone who suffers seeks treatment.

“I used to be one of those guys that made fun of people with post-traumatic stress -- in my mind, not to their face,” said Loftus in an interview broadcast on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.  “But now I realize that it’s a real thing.”

We first met Sergeant Loftus in the notorious Arghandab Valley in Southern Afghanistan in June 2010. A true Taliban stronghold, Loftus and the members of 82nd Airborne were under constant attack. The dense farmland was fertile ground for improvised explosive devices, and because many of the roads were too narrow for mine-resistant vehicles, the patrols had to be executed on foot.

In just one year the unit found more than 6,000 IED’s. Roughly 200 soldiers from the brigade were injured and 38 were killed in action. Loftus was nearing the end of his tour and the deployment was taking its toll. When we asked him about a fellow soldier whose memorial we attended he dissolved into tears.

“You see I try not to think about it because when you think about it, then I get like this,” said an emotional Loftus.  “I try to hide it. I try not to think about it because I got to stay 100 percent, you know, I got to keep a good example in front of the other soldiers.”

NBC News

Louis Loftus and his girlfriend, Deidra Lopez, unpacking Loftus' things when he returned from Afghanistan

Our meeting with the young soldier would be the beginning of a nearly two year journey as we followed him from the front lines of war to the day-to-day life at home.  By November 2010, five months after we met him, he was honorably discharged and back in Akron, Ohio.  Almost immediately there were warning signs that the emotional struggle we had witnessed in Afghanistan had followed him home. 

“It’s not hard to understand the difference between combat and being at home,” said Loftus.  “But it's hard to change your emotions back like that.”

Captain Paul Hammer, who is a psychiatrist and director for the Department of Defense’s Center for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, says that when a person experiences trauma the brain gets stuck in fight-and-flight kind of response.

“The cognitive part of your brain has difficulty telling it, ‘No, I'm OK now.  I'm in a safe place,’” said Hammer.

Initially Loftus insisted his symptoms were manageable, but things changed over the winter. Depression set in, he gained weight and began drinking more. A 2012 report from the American Journal of Public Health found that that 39 percent of veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan screened positive for alcohol abuse.

Part of the problem, says Hammer, is that for a lot of soldiers they are doing the most important work of their lives when they are deployed. “Then you come back and there's weirdness, and vagueness, and relationships,” he said. “That seems mundane and doesn't seem as purposeful.”

Loftus sought help at his local VA and was prescribed medication and began therapy sessions. But avoidance is one of the four criteria when diagnosing PTSD and Loftus was avoiding a lot of the emotions. Rage began to surface.

“I think what got me was how on edge he was all the time,” said Deidra Lopez, his girlfriend.  “I would say something and he would just flip.”

By the summer of 2011, Loftus’s life was spiraling out of control. His girlfriend was pregnant but the relationship had disintegrated, and after reading a news report about an attack in Afghanistan, he suffered a sudden and powerful anxiety attack that hospitalized him. 

NBC News

Louis Loftus with his son, Mason.

“From there I started feeling that, well, since that happened everything now should go up,” said Loftus.

But in fact things got worse. In the midst of trying to reconcile with Deidra, the two got into an argument while driving to get groceries and when she refused to get out of the car, he physically threw her out. The result was a domestic violence felony.

To make matters worse, he was also charged with resisting arrest when several days after the incident he got drunk, beat up his father and fought with police.

But Loftus got a chance to make things right. In January, just a month after being sentenced to three years’ probation and a stint in a half-way house, he and Deidra welcomed their son Mason Lopez Loftus into the world.

And while managing his PTSD is still a day to day struggle, life for Loftus has stabilized.

“I do feel that, eventually, it will get better,” he said.  “Maybe not a year, maybe not two -- you know, three, four, five years but I do think the way I handle it will be better.” 


Additional Resources:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs