By Derek Turner
Published: January 11, 2012
The stresses and challenges of driving in a combat zone can sometimes lead to erratic driving once servicemembers return home and take the wheel of their civilian vehicles.
James L. Harper Jr./Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
WASHINGTON — Does climbing behind the wheel of the family SUV make you nearly as nervous as you were behind the wheel of a military vehicle in Afghanistan or Iraq? Do you get anxious at intersections or stopped in heavy traffic, jittery when you pass garbage strewn across the road?
Erratic driving by combat veterans is increasingly a problem on American roadways, The New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing a report by USAA, a leading insurer of active-duty troops. The study found that accidents in which the servicemembers were at fault went up by 13 percent after deployments. The riskiest period appeared to be the six months returning from a deployment.
The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are aware of the problem and have launched studies into the link between wartime service and either overly aggressive or overly defensive driving, the story noted. Army statistics show that 48 soldiers died in auto accidents last year while off duty, the highest number in the last three years.
“I can’t talk with somebody who is a returned servicemember without them telling me about driving issues,” Erica Stern, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota, told the Times. Stern is conducting a national study of driving problems in people with brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder for the Pentagon.
Susan Max, a 63-year-old grandmother of four, deployed to Iraq in 2007 as an Army reservist. One of her jobs was to drive an unarmored vehicle through Baghdad, transporting large sums of cash destined for reconstruction projects. The hypervigilance that carried her through, she told the Times, manifested itself as extreme anxiety in the driver’s seat back in the States.
Before her deployment, she drove around northern California carefree in her maroon Mustang. Now, her Mustang replaced by a more conservative vehicle, she straddles the center line whenever possible, as if avoiding bombs on the road’s shoulders. Small, cramped parking lots make her nervous.
“I used to like driving,” she told the paper. “Now my family doesn’t feel safe driving with me.”
Experts say the problem isn’t limited to those suffering PTSD or other combat-related ailments. It can manifest itself in otherwise healthy veterans exhibiting reflexive driving instincts adopted in combat zones. Problems tend to decrease with more time at home, but do not always disappear entirely.
“There is no accepted treatment for this,” Dr. Steven H. Woodward, a clinical psychologist with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, told the Times. “It’s a new phenomenon.”