A Tough Homecoming for War Veterans

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

© Zhang Jun/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home with unprecedented physical and mental wounds. Here, a Q&A guide.

What challenges do new veterans face?

More than 2.3 million soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, and official fatality and casualty numbers — 6,179 dead, 47,000 wounded — fail to capture the extensive physical and psychological injuries many of them have suffered.

The Veterans Administration has treated more than 210,000 veterans of those wars for post-traumatic stress disorder, but acknowledges a much larger epidemic, since the stigma of mental-health problems prevents many of them from seeking help. Vets are also returning to marriages and families strained or broken by multiple deployments, few employment opportunities, and a country largely oblivious to the wars in which they served, heightening their feelings of loneliness and alienation. "It's harder coming home than leaving — anyone will tell you that," says Col. Michael Gaal, who served in Iraq.

What kinds of wounds have they suffered?

Wounded soldiers are far more likely to come home alive today than in past wars, thanks to advances in combat medicine, faster evacuations, and better body armor. In Vietnam, 2.6 soldiers survived their wounds for every battlefield death; in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio is 16 to 1. But that means thousands are returning with catastrophic injuries, such as double and triple amputations and debilitating spinal cord damage, and they need special, long-term care. The use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents has caused a huge increase in traumatic brain injuries, widely considered the "signature injury" of these wars, with at least 218,000 cases diagnosed over the past decade.

What are traumatic brain injuries?

They range from penetrating head wounds to concussions sustained through exposure to massive bomb blasts. Diagnosis can be difficult; blast waves can cause micro-concussions that damage brain cells even of soldiers who are not counted among the wounded. "There are combat wounds you can see, and others that are invisible until symptoms develop," says clinical psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen. Even mild brain injuries can lead to a range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems, including difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and depression. Symptoms often overlap with those of PTSD, making it hard to determine whether soldiers are suffering a psychological problem, a brain injury, or both.

Are these problems widespread?

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates that nearly one in three recent vets — or more than 700,000 of them — suffers from PTSD, depression, or brain injury. Blackouts, flashbacks, night terrors, and sudden rages are common among veterans; suicide, alcoholism, and drug use have surged. PTSD has been cited as a factor in many acts of vets running amok, such as this month's killing of a Mount Rainier National Park ranger by a 24-year-old Iraq returnee. Since PTSD symptoms can emerge long after service ends, fallout from the disorder is likely to increase. "When you look at the epidemic of PTSD, you see the future," says Harvard professor Linda Bilmes.

Are vets getting the help they need?

Many are not. "No one was really prepared for the number of seriously wounded survivors," says Dr. Ronald Glasser, the author of a book on battlefield medicine. Wounded veterans have swamped the VA system, leading to a backlog of almost 900,000 disability claims. Vets complain of a burdensome bureaucracy, lost paperwork, redundant medical exams, and inconsistent diagnoses. "You fight for your country, then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised," said Clay Hunt, a Marine sniper who was shot in the wrist in Iraq, and had to wait 10 months for disability checks. Depressed, divorced, and haunted by the loss of several close friends in battle, Hunt killed himself last March.

What will their long-term care cost?

Hundreds of billions of dollars. Studies show that the cost of health-care and disability payments for veterans of past wars did not peak until decades after the last bullet was fired. The peak year for paying out disability claims to World War I veterans was 1969, and care costs for Vietnam vets have not yet crested. Because of the high survival rates and the many cases of PTSD and brain injuries, it's been estimated that the medical and disability costs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the next 40 years could reach $930 billion.

Are returning vets getting jobs?

Many find that their old jobs have disappeared, or that potential employers are skeptical about the value of their military service. Unemployment among recent vets is 13.1 percent, compared with the national level of 8.5 percent. One in three vets between the ages of 18 and 24 — many of whom had scant education or work experience when they deployed — is now jobless, twice the rate for non-vets of the same age range. "The spike in new veteran unemployment should be a serious wake-up call for the country," says Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The tide of war might be receding, but the surge home is just really beginning."

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Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
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iStock

Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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