Friday, October 14, 2011

Car Accidents Leading Cause of Death for Veterans Recently Returned Home

Think you know the leading cause of death for military personnel in their first year home from the war? You might be surprised.

Car Accidents. According to Karen Cutright, program manager for the Veterans Administration (VA), car accidents claim more veteran lives in their first year home from combat than any other cause. And the ones who die tend to be young, single males "from the infantry ranks, or on gun crews or in seamanship roles."

It isn't exactly news that veterans returning from combat tend to be riskier drivers. Those returning from Vietnam were 50% more likely to die in car accidents than the general population. Gulf War veterans were 30-50% more likely. But now, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are 75% more likely to die in car accidents than non-veterans.

Now, what is the reason for this? There may be a few factors in play. The first one is that this is how soldiers are taught to drive in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a war marked with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and ambushes, troops are required to drive evasively and dangerously to stay alive. They are trained to identify possible IEDs hidden in roadside trash, roadkill, and anything that could look suspicious. When they return to the States, it's hard to switch that mindset off.

"A 2009 Army study showed that while deployed, 50% of soldiers said they were anxious when other cars approached quickly, 23% had driven through stop signs, and 20% were anxious during normal driving."

Another cause of reckless driving could be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). When soldiers are cleared to come back home, they may be suffering from these "invisible" injuries, but it doesn't mean they aren't affected. Drivers may not realize their driving is impaired since they don't recognize the mistakes they could be making.

The VA is teaming with the Department of Transportation to create their new Safe Driving Initiative campaign. The goal is to "increase awareness of car crashes among veterans and to encourage them to continue wearing seat belts and to slow down." The organizations are using simulators to "re-train" people on how to drive safely in a civilian capacity. The simulators are particularly useful with TBI patients to identify their strengths and improve their weaknesses.

Hopefully with the awareness campaign and further efforts by the VA and other organizations, we can lower the numbers of these deaths and remember our soldiers as the courageous heroes they are, rather than just as a statistic.

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