Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Concerns

ByABC News
December 14, 2004, 6:35 PM

Dec. 15, 2004 — -- Sgt. John Newport left Iraq months ago, but he is still struggling with what he experienced there. He keeps playing one scene over and over again in his mind.

It took place when he was in his Humvee, passing a convoy of trucks that was hauling tanks. One of the truck drivers tossed a bag of M&Ms at a bunch of Iraqi kids.

A little girl went to pick it up, but there was a truck behind her. The driver didn't see her, and ran her over.

"The hardest part for me is that she was about the same age as my daughter is," Newport told "Nightline," with tears welling up in his eyes. "After that truck had run her over, you couldn't even tell it was a person."

Newport has what doctors call post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition often linked to depression and floating anxiety.

There are concerns that the Iraq war is producing more cases of PTSD than any conflict in decades because the violence has been so widespread and exposure to it so constant over long periods.

Newport says he began reliving the scene when he returned home to the Army base at Ft. Polk, La., and saw his daughter for the first time. "But it was no longer that little Iraqi girl," he said. "That was my daughter going into that road."

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one out of six soldiers surveyed may be struggling with PTSD.

More than 300,000 U.S. soldiers have served in Iraq. There are about 140,000 there now.

But the study was done early in the conflict. In many respects things have gotten worse.

"If there's increased threat, if they're more exposed, then there'll be higher rates," said Robert Ursano, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress and chief psychiatrist at the military's own medical school.

Iraq -- with suicide bombers, roadside mines and the constant threat of attack -- poses a unique challenge to the mental health of American soldiers.

"They're more at risk and they feel that risk in an ongoing way," Ursano said. "There's not an area of safety. It's all relative safety. In other wars, one has been able to have spots where, in fact, safety could be relatively ensured. That's less true in Iraq."