The US government’s indifference towards mentally scarred Vietnam veterans is ingrained in that nation’s consciousness through books, films, music and political rhetoric. Now the Obama Administration faces a major challenge to ensure that the same fate does not await the nearly 40 percent of military personnel who have been involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A research study to be published in the September edition of the American Journal of Public Health says an examination of the medical records of 289,328 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans shows that 106,726 received mental health diagnoses, including 62,929 who were diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and 50,432 who were diagnosed with depression.

This study, conducted by researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Centre, shows that a pervious study of 103,000 veterans from these conflicts and published in 2007, underestimated the extent of mental illness by over 12 percent.

The problem of mental illness among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is growing. The study notes that new “mental health diagnoses among … veterans during the study period increased 6-fold, from 28 of 439 veterans in 2002 (6.4%) to 106,726 of 289,328 veterans (36.9%) by March 31 2008.” Post traumatic stress disorders cases have escalated from 1% to 21% in six years.

The culture of the US military and American society generally is partly responsible for the researchers finding that diagnosis of mental illness among military personnel can be delayed by two years or more. “Factors contributing to delayed mental health diagnoses may include the stigma of mental illness leading to a reluctance to disclose mental health problems until problems interfere with functioning…”, the study notes.

Worryingly, it is the young soldier who is more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. 16 to 24-year-old veterans are at the highest risk for post traumatic stress disorders and drug and alcohol abuse disorders, the study finds. And women service personnel are more likely to develop drug and alcohol disorders than men — a finding that undermines popular myths about military conflict.

So far there are over 1.6 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the US, so that if this study is correct, then the number suffering from mental illness is likely to be around 350,000 and rising.

But it is not only soldiers and other military personnel who are suffering increased rates of mental illness in the US — it extends to their families. As AP has reported, internal Pentagon documents show that from 2007 to 2008, some 20 percent more children of active duty troops were hospitalized for mental health services and that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, inpatient visits among military children have increased 50 percent.

“The total number of outpatient mental health visits for children of men and women on active duty doubled from 1 million in 2003 to 2 million in 2008. During the same period, the yearly bed days for military children 14 and under increased from 35,000 to 55,000, the documents show,” AP reported.

Last year, Barak Obama condemned the Bush Administration for not doing enough to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — these figures show he made a valid point. On July 10 the Congress passed, almost unanimously, a measure to increase veterans spending by $US132 million — a 12 percent increase. But the cost to the American community of the Bush Administration and Congressional Iraq folly and the quagmire of Afghanistan will be one that cannot be counted in dollars but in the pain and suffering that will linger for years for many Americans and their families, just as happened after Vietnam. This is Obama’s problem.