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Quality of life is improving for many injured veterans, but health issues are on the rise as they age, survey says

Patricia Kime and Leo Shane III | Military Times

Wounded veterans have seen improved employment opportunities and quality of life in recent years but still face serious long-term mental health and physical health challenges, according to a new survey of Wounded Warrior Project members released this week.

Among the most disturbing findings is that one-third of veterans polled for the report had suicidal thoughts in just the past two weeks.

The survey, the 10th annual membership poll conducted by WWP officials, gathered responses from about 36,000 wounded veterans, nearly two-thirds of whom have a VA disability rating of 80 percent or more. About 90 percent of the group receives some disability payouts from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The findings do not represent the veteran population as a whole but do offer a snapshot into the challenges and successes of veterans injured in the last few decades.

Researchers have seen positive trends in these veterans’ quality of life, according to Melanie Mousseau, WWP’s director of metrics.

The survey found that unemployment among WWP members appears to have declined over the last three years, from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 10.3 percent in this year’s survey. Similarly, home ownership rates among the veterans has increased to about 57 percent, and about 30 percent reported their financial situation has improved from the previous year, up from 25 percent in 2017.

Almost half of the group surveyed said they could often or always deal with unforeseen challenges in their daily life.

But Mousseau warned that wounded veterans’ difficulties still present significant hurdles in their lives. Mental health issues “continue to grow at an alarming rate,” researchers wrote, with significant levels of depression (77 percent), anxiety (81 percent) and post-traumatic stress (83 percent) in the survey population.

Nearly 88 percent of veterans who participated said they face significant sleep problems on a regular basis, up from about 75 percent two years ago. About 13 percent of the group said they think about harming themselves multiple times a week.

In addition, the survey indicates that wounded vets also have significant physical challenges and aren’t seeking care for their medical conditions.

The research showed that the number of veterans who are obese or morbidly obese has risen steadily in the last decade — putting them at increased risk for diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease and other health conditions.

Veterans also are reporting that their physical health affects their quality of life, limiting their daily activities: Nearly 72 percent said they have difficulty climbing stairs, while two-thirds reported limitations on moderate activity such as playing golf or doing housework.

But according to the survey, 38 percent of these veterans are either not seeking or are putting off care for these physical challenges, while 32 percent reported not seeking care for mental health conditions, according to Melanie Mousseau, WWP’s director of metrics.

“We often spend a lot of time, effort and energy focusing on the barriers to mental health care, so I think it’s equally important for us to recognize the challenges associated with physical health. There’s the obvious noted connection between mind and body," Mousseau said.

In 2019, 52 percent of the 35,908 survey respondents reported being obese, up from 40 percent in 2009. Roughly 40 percent of the general population in the U.S. is obese, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The physical challenges aren’t surprising for this population, 91 percent of whom have three or more injuries or illnesses and 48 percent of whom say they exercise just a few times a month or not at all.

Barriers to exercise include fear of re-injury, fear of or experiencing pain, time, cost and unease in social situations, the respondents said.

They also reported having other unhealthy habits, including not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and consuming alcohol at a pace that puts them at risk for alcohol abuse — more than half consume at least one or two alcoholic beverages a day.

Mousseau said the results indicate that 17 percent of the population is at risk for substance abuse.

The WWP annual survey helps guide the nonprofit’s program and services decisions and also provides a look at the issues facing post-9/11 veterans who deployed to a combat zone.

WWP has 136,000 veteran members and 35,000 family support members. While 90 percent of veterans have access to VA care, the organization augments those services with health and wellness programs, employment, education and VA benefits counseling, and support for severely injured service members with brain, head and spinal cord injuries.

For the first time, the WWP survey asked whether its members were exposed to battlefield toxins such as burn pits, chemical munitions, ionizing radiation and environmental pollution. More than 70 percent said they had been exposed, and among those who said they probably or definitely were, nearly 90 percent reported their health as poor or fair, as opposed to good, very good or excellent.

According to the survey, just 9 percent of those who say they encountered an environmental hazard during military service have received treatment for their exposure at the Veterans Health Administration.

“I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and a mitochondria dysfunction. My life as never been the same,” wrote one veteran in the survey’s comments section. “I am still detoxing all those toxins out of my system and it’s like the VA is clueless about it and the issues I’ve had.”

WWP and other veterans organizations have made environmental exposures a top legislative priority this year, seeking funds for research as well as resources and benefits for affected veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs established an Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence in May to increase its understanding of related illnesses, oversee research and provide health evaluations for patients.

More than 187,000 people have enrolled in the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits registry since 2014. Roughly 31 percent of the WWP respondents said they are enrolled in the registry, which was established by Congress to encourage the VA to document and track the health of troops exposed to pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to burn trash, medical waste and garbage.

The survey also found that:

  • The number of WWP members with a 100 percent disability rating is on the rise — 38 percent in 2019, up from 31 percent in 2017.
  • Cannabis use also is common in 1 in 5 injured veterans, with nearly 20 percent reporting using in 2019 and 18 percent in 2018.
  • Opioid use held relatively steady, with 11.7 percent reporting having used opiates in the previous 12 months in 2018, and 10.5 taking them in 2019.

In the coming months, WWP analysts will examine the results to determine what factors are helping or hurting their members’ well-being. From the comments section, though, the non-profit heard at least one clear message: help veterans “get active.”

“Help us get cannabis, nutrition, physical fitness. I can’t afford to get into a good crossfit/intense training that will push me to get healthy … It’s been a super-rough transitioning [sic], and convenient gym access is more important than the VA. So many fat, depressed vets, and it has to change,” a veteran pleaded.

The full survey is available online at the WWP web site.

Topics
Active Duty
Benefits
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Education
Employment
Family
Financial Assistance
Guard/Reserves
Mental Health
Peer Support
Physical Well-Being
Post-9/11
Recreation
Transition
Women Veterans