WASHINGTON, D.C. --- A three-month investigation by a team of Medill student reporters has found significant gaps between the health care and support for the 665,000 National Guardsmen and Reservists who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and their active-duty counterparts.
The project, called Hidden Surge, found that many have been hastily channeled through a post-deployment process that has been plagued with difficulties, including reliance on self-reporting to identify health problems. These service members face unique challenges and report higher rates of some mental health problems and related ills than active-duty troops.
Work by a team of 10 students in Medill’s graduate journalism program is published today in The Washington Post and is available on the Medill’s Hidden Surge site. Students interviewed more than 80 current and former military and health officials and experts, and National Guard and Reserve troops and their families, and reviewed scores of official documents and reports. They traveled to military bases, National Guard installations and medical centers in nine states to do on-the-ground reporting.
“Reporting from military bases and other locations from Montana to Missouri and from New Mexico to North Carolina, the Medill students have done a real public service, delivering a well-reported and well-told examination of an issue that is only now being fully acknowledged by the military,’’ said Medill faculty member Josh Meyer, who directed the project and reported on national security for the Los Angeles Times for 20 years.
The students’ research and interviews with current and former officials suggest that attempts by Congress, the military and private contractors to address the problems have been uncoordinated and often ineffective. That includes efforts to provide the kind of comprehensive medical care and support networks that help diagnose what military leaders call the signature wounds of the post-9/11 conflicts -- post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Reservists lack access to the system or networks that experts say are needed to assess and treat their injuries. After brief demobilization assessments, reserve troops return home and must navigate disparate health-care and support providers, often without the psychological safety net that comes from living near members of their unit.
"The National Guard faces unique challenges compared to our active-duty counterparts," acknowledged Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, which is responsible for administering the guard's 54 state and territorial units. He said the Obama administration is redoubling efforts to address resulting problems, including substance abuse, depression, PTSD and suicide.
Among the project’s findings:
- The guard and reserve have been hit particularly hard by mental health issues. From September 2010 to August 2011, post-deployment health reassessment screenings found nearly 17 out of every 100 returning reservists had mental health problems serious enough for follow up. They are 55 percent more likely than active-component service members to have such problems.
- Because of screening lapses, reserve soldiers were sent overseas who should not have been, including some with behavioral problems that could become aggravated by the stress of combat and lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide.
- Private contractors are responsible for much of the pre- and post-deployment screening; the latest multi-year ''readiness’’ contract proposal is estimated to be worth about $1 billion. Despite the public funding, they are not required to provide any kind of comprehensive public reporting on their efforts and whether they are successful.
- Congress has not been aggressive in addressing the reserve health issues. In December, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., couldn’t get enough support to even require the Pentagon to study his proposal to ease the transition of reserve troops by giving them more time and resources on their way home.
“The students’ imaginative use of video storytelling and interactive graphics, as well as traditional narrative, to present their work showcases their understanding of the need to find new ways to engage people and keep them informed on important issues like national security,” said faculty member Ellen Shearer, co-director of the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and director of the Medill Washington Program.
The students learned sophisticated interactive storytelling approaches with the help of Kat Downs and Greg Linch of The Washington Post.
The Hidden Surge project is the second in a series of annual investigations that are part of Medill’s broader National Security Journalism Initiative which is funded by the McCormick Foundation. The first project, Global Warning, examined the threat posed to national security by climate change. It garnered international attention and won a national award from the Online News Association.
The National Security Journalism Initiative is unique in journalism education. It comprises undergraduate and graduate classes at Medill in Chicago and Washington; research and reporting projects; and resources and training that provide students and working journalists with the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately and with context on issues related to defense, security and civil liberties.