Survey highlights issues among state's veterans - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Survey highlights issues among state's veterans

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With unemployment, homelessness and joblessness on the rise, it's no secret America's military veterans are suffering. But how are West Virginia's veterans doing?

A study commissioned by the Legislature's Select Committee on Veterans Affairs hopes to answer that question. Joseph Scotti, a professor at West Virginia University, teamed up with Atlas Research last year to survey 1,200 of the state's veterans. Scotti released the results of the study Jan. 8 at the committee's monthly interim meeting.

The 2012 West Virginia Veterans Study looked at several issues from a cross-section of veterans representing all ages and eras of combat. Scotti pointed out that the study only looked at a sliver of information and focuses specifically on the impact service and combat has on veterans across eras, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the conflict in the Balkans, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Combat is stressful across all of those eras," Scotti told the committee.

Scotti's presentation to the committee focused on several areas including demographics, income, quality of life and behavioral risk factors, health and health care access and mental health issues.

The youngest veteran to participate was 19 years old and the oldest was 94. The average age of participants was 54. Based on that information, five age groups were established to form the basis of presenting information in the study. Additionally, about 89 percent of participants live in West Virginia and all 55 counties are represented in the survey. Of the number who participated, 14 percent are still active duty, mostly representing the youngest age group. The remaining 12 percent who do not currently live in West Virginia are currently serving in the military.

With the growing unemployment and homeless rates among veterans, understanding their finances and money-related worries is key to helping them, Scotti said. Most veterans report a household income of between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, according to the survey, but they still worry about their ability to afford housing, problems with their housing and the economy in general. Worry is highest among the younger age groups, but about 20 percent of veterans aged 65 and older said they're worried about the state of the economy.

But a glance at the graph might prove misleading, Scotti warned. He said older veterans typically are less worried about their finances because they're more stable and may have less debt than younger ones.

"We've mentioned the financial piece because that helps us understand who the veterans are and their economics, but financial concerns and housing concerns are a big stressor for a lot of people, especially if you have a family," he said.

Although worries tend to decrease with age, the quality of life among veterans does not seem to improve. Veterans across all ages rated their sleep as low. Scotti said most combat veterans have trouble sleeping, no matter how long they've been out of military service.

"We're seeing in general these veterans are not rating their quality of life very high," Scotti said. "Its not in the eight, nine, 10 range in general. A first look at those who have more combat exposure and those who have experienced depression and PTSD … they are more likely to rate themselves much lower."

As for health, the survey found a number of military veterans are overweight or obese at numbers significantly above the national average as well as the state's average. This could be what contributes to the high number of veterans who report having diabetes, heart attacks or strokes, Scotti said.

"Interestingly, the overweight and obese range tends to cluster around the middle-age range," Scotti said. "Maybe middle-aged people put on weight and lose it later or people who are overweight don't make it to the older ages. We have to think about those particular questions."

Mental health is a big concern among veterans, as Scotti pointed out in the study. According to the survey, 22 percent of veterans report having depression, 21 percent have some sort of sleep disorder that Scotti said may or may not be directly tied to their weight, 17 percent each have post traumatic stress disorder or anxiety while 4 percent reported having some sort of traumatic brain injury.

However, Scotti said 60 percent veterans have self-reported head injuries. Head injuries are cumulative, he said, meaning the more trauma a person takes to the head the worse the effects. Symptoms of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, are similar to those of PTSD.

"To me, this means we're missing something," Scotti said.

To help veterans, Scotti recommended the Legislature look into establishing a public service campaign to warn people of the risk factors associated with depression and suicide, especially among veterans. In addition, increasing the number of mental health services could help the Veterans Administration keep up with the number of veterans with PTSD and depression.