May 6, 2013

Veterans face high fatal crash risk

Chances of a lethal motor vehicle accident rise with more deployments.

By DAVID BROWN The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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Iraq war veteran Steven Acheson spent 11 months driving a colonel around the Sadr City district of Baghdad in an armored Humvee in 2006. While he escaped injury in Iraq, Acheson says he suffers from panic attacks behind the wheel when he drives at home around Platteville, Wis.

David Brown/The Washington Post

Tellingly, there was a "dose-response relationship" between deployment and risk. Soldiers with three deployments had 36 percent more accidents, compared with 27 percent more in the twice-deployed and 12 percent in people deployed only once.


But the problem isn't just a carryover of habits.

One-quarter of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans enrolled in a 60-day residential treatment program for PTSD in California said they drove after drinking. One-fifth said they used seat belts "less than sometimes," in part because they get in the way of a rapid escape from a vehicle.

"Failure to adapt the unique combat driving behaviors used in the current conflicts cannot be the only explanation for deployment-related risky driving behavior and excess . . . mortality," wrote Mark Zamorski, a Canadian military physician, and Amanda Kelley, a civilian U.S. Army psychologist, in a report to NATO on the subject.

"All of the likely mechanisms . . . could be mediated by distress or mental disorders," they wrote.

Todd Nelson was an Army logistician riding in the front seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser in Kabul in August 2007 when a car in an adjoining lane blew up. He lost his right eye, broke both jaws and had burns on 18 percent of his body surface. He's had 43 operations under general anesthesia.

When he was finally well enough to get back on the road, he drove for several months before his wife "made a comment about how aggressive I was being. She said, 'You're scaring me,'" Nelson, 40, recalled recently.

He sped. He swerved whenever he saw a vehicle with a low-hanging rear end suggesting heavy load. "Hey, I drove much worse than this over there and nothing happened," he says he told himself.


Nelson, who works in the recruiting department of USAA, broke the habit on his own.

He timed how long it took him to drive to college each day in San Antonio and proved to himself that going the speed limit added little time to the trip. He made a game of counting the number of cars he would let merge on the way in and the way back. After a month, he said, he was back to driving pretty normally. He now goes out of his way to talk about it to other veterans.

The military is beginning to pay attention to the risks facing veterans who resume driving when they get home.

The Army gives out a brochure with tips on how to increase self-control; one is to tape a drawing by one's child to the dashboard.


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