WASHINGTON — Wounds and mental disabilities of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan can mess up their sex lives, too, health experts said Wednesday. But those wounds often go untreated because the topic is taboo and has gone unstudied.
Whatever the reason, failed sexual intimacy can contribute to higher suicide and divorce rates among returning soldiers, specialists told a seminar sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on health issues.
They said the latest U.S. wars have brought more attention to psychological wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression, and should now include sexual problems.
"The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have taken steps towards helping soldiers with mental problems, but we are very concerned for those who have problems with their sexual intimacy," said Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general and now principal investigator at the Center of Excellence for Sexual Health at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
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"This tends to be a neglected area and people deal with it silently," Satcher said.
Although the problem is widespread on the basis of anecdotal reports, there are no studies of its prevalence, according to sex therapists who've worked with troops and veterans. Some Veterans Affairs centers offer treatment for sexual health issues, but to varying degrees and without national coordination.
"The VA is at the preliminary stages of conducting a survey to measure the incidence of this problem," said Linda Mona, a psychologist at the VA's healthcare center in Long Beach, Calif.
She said the VA is considering the creation, in conjunction with Satcher's center, of a national interactive Web site to provide sexual assessment and education for soldiers with intimacy problems.
Psychologists from public and private centers said they increasingly treat troops wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan for sexual problems. Typically, they said, their clients feel embarrassed and awkward, and wait a long time to get help.
"They have to deal with their changed bodies, self-esteem issues," said Mitchell Tepper, associate director of Morehouse's sexual health center. "They have concerns of whether they are a lovable and capable partner, and it takes time before they adapt to this change."
Tepper, who was paralyzed by an accident in his early 20s, said he knows how hard it can be for a disabled person to establish a healthy sexual relationship.
Last week, when the sexual health seminar began to be publicized, Tepper said he got dozens of e-mails at his Web site, http://www.sexualhealth.com, from wounded soldiers with sexual problems who didn't know where to turn.
"A soldier sent me an e-mail that said: 'I hope you are the right person to send this e-mail to, otherwise this will sound strange. I was blown up in Iraq in 2004 and that resulted in sexual dysfunctions and problems in that area with my wife. Can you help me?"
Iowa National Guardsman Robert Jackson, a corporal who lost both legs below the knee in Iraq, told the seminar that one of his first worries was whether his wife, Abby, would still love him.
Abby said she worried, too, because her husband showed no interest in sex. When she asked a doctor how long it would take before they could be intimate, she recalled, the doctor said only "it would take time."
Jackson said that luckily, he and his wife were open about their problems. Disabled young single soldiers have it harder, he said. But they, too, sometimes prevail.
"One day I was sitting with a friend who is 22 and an amputee, and he suddenly asked me: 'How do I get a girl? I'm burned and an amputee,'" Jackson said.
"Today he's married and has two children."
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