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Friday, April 18

Military has made great strides in treating POWs

By Jean Tarbett | The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch

Although details are not being released about the progress of former prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch, improvements the military has made in treating the psychological effects of war give a positive outlook for the West Virginia ex-POW and other American soldiers.

``We've learned a lot more about how to reintegrate POWs with society,'' said psychiatrist Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, program director for mental health policy and women's issues at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Lifelong symptoms suffered by many World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who did not receive treatment after their experiences, can be avoided by today's POWs with the help of quality and early treatment, experts say.

These days, ``The military has a lot of focus on mental health,'' Ritchie said.

A soldier such as Lynch is likely to get that help from a military psychologist who is specially trained to work with POWs and hostages. Lynch, a 19-year-old from Palestine, W.Va., suffered broken limbs and a spinal injury while being held captive by Iraqis for nine days. She was rescued by U.S. Special Forces with the help of an Iraqi man who informed Marines of her whereabouts.

Each POW from Operation Iraqi Freedom is likely to work with one person who will follow the soldier for at least a year and perhaps longer.

Time and research has taught experts that it is important to let POWs take their time, both in talking about their ordeal and in getting reintroduced into society, Ritchie said.

``Reunion with loved ones is a little bit of a two-edged sword,'' she said. ``Although people want to rejoin families, they want to get themselves ready first. Seeing family for the first time - that can be a high emotional state, especially if you have a large family.

``Instead of plunging somebody back into the bosom of the family right away, it's better to start with phone calls for gradual reintegration.''

Effects for POWs vary dramatically depending on how long they were kept prisoner, whether or not they were kept in solitary confinement or tortured, or whether they had any contact with colleagues, Ritchie said.

``Usually, when they're first released, they're very excited and elated to be out of there, but what can happen is a sensory overload that develops,'' Ritchie said. ``It's too much too fast. There may be cameras stuck in their face, and everyone from the president on down calling them right away.

``They need a decompression process to get themselves together before they're reintroduced.''

Decompression can start as early as the first day or anytime within the first few days after release, Ritchie said.

From that point, soldiers also get training on dealing with media and reintegration with family, which is much easier when a person has been gone for a short time, Ritchie said.

``Also during that time, you're going to educate the person about normal reactions to situations,'' Ritchie said. ``There's a lot of things that are very common that people will have, such as nightmares, insomnia, fear and vigilance.

People might think they're going crazy because they keep seeing a scene over and over, but that's normal, she said. Most former POWs initially think everything is fine and have a strong desire to go back to work, but sometimes have delayed symptoms, such as post traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety, she said. Many POWs from past wars have felt guilty, as though they could have done something differently to avoid captivity.

When it comes to ``debriefing,'' or going over the events of the captivity, the military has learned in recent years that it's best to let soldiers take their time, she said.

``It's not meant to be a painful process,'' she said. ``One thing we've learned is that to force somebody to talk about what happened when they're not ready is not helpful.''

Dean Cromwell, coordinator of the post traumatic stress disorder program at Huntington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said POWs have been inclined to take a slower pace than other veterans in talking about their experiences. The nature of their experiences, which could range from torture to sexual abuse, are so difficult to discuss that sometimes even families of soldiers are unaware of what they have gone through.

That's one aspect of treatment that more people should be aware of - the effects on family, Cromwell said. The VA hospital offers counseling for families as well as veterans to cope.

``We're trying to set up a meeting for spouses of veterans so they have some support and so they know what they should do and what they should avoid,'' he said.

On the Web:

www.axpow.org, The American Ex-Prisoner of War Association.