War Trauma from Iraq and Afghanistan in Romania

War trauma has yet to be receive much attention in the NATO member state of Romania. Cases of psychologically affected soldiers returning home from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan disappear inside desk drawers and filing cabinets, creating a host of new problems one Bucharest-based psychiatrist has called a “ticking time bomb”.

Dr. Gabriel Diaconu is not a fragile person. Tall with broad shoulders, he laughs loudly and often. He often slams his fist down on the table to emphasize a point. He tells stories, eats and smokes cigarettes — often all three at the same time. But as a doctor, discussing the official numbers of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the Romanian army make him stop, and a pained expression appears on his face. The trauma specialist is aware of the reality, which the Romanian government and society have largely chosen to ignore.

The withdrawal of Romanian troops from Afghanistan has just begun. Since 2002, Romanian soldiers have fought there as a part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. From 2003 to 2009, there were also Romanian troops stationed in Iraq. In total, 25 of these soldiers lost their lives in the two wars. In everyday speech, they are known as “heroes”. Many were wounded, and while some of their injuries were visible, others received wounds that remain invisible.

But cases of traumatized soldiers returning from war are filed away, and rarely seen or spoken of again. According to official records, only two Romanian soldiers received a diagnosis of PTSD due to their deployment. As approximately 32,000 Romanian troops fought in the wars, that represents a total of just 0.006 percent.

Meanwhile, the German Federal Armed Forces reported 149 new cases of PTSD in 2013 alone, with an additional 1274 soldiers were already receiving treatment during the same period. Research at the Technical University of Dresden revealed that three percent of German soldiers met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after returning home from fighting in operation ISAF. And given that PTSD and other combat-related illnesses often go unreported, that number is likely considerably higher. The American military reports that seven percent of soldiers returning from Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD. Among troops returning home from Iraq, the military says it’s about 25 percent.

Dr. Diaconu is a psychiatrist, and he treats Romanian soldiers who have PTSD. “In my estimation, hundreds must suffer from it”, he says. Diaconu is not an army doctor, meaning his patients have to pay for their therapy themselves. His practice is in Bucharest, which often means he’s hundreds of kilometres away from the people who need his help.

One of these people is Florian Jalaboi. He returned home from Afghanistan in 2012. Before that, in the 1990s, he was deployed as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The army is his profession, and always has been. But today, Jalaboi can no longer perform his duties, and the Romanian army has granted him early retirement.

The fact that Jalaboi cannot continue working due to the debilitating symptoms he experiences as a consequence of PTSD isn’t mentioned anywhere in his discharge papers. As in most other cases, his story will probably be hushed up. Speaking publicly about his disease in the newspaper “Gândul” did not have the desired impact. And Romanian society doesn’t seem to have shown much of a reaction either. Jalaboi, who says he no longer wants to talk to the press, says his “confession” only caused him more trouble.

It’s difficult to find an active soldier willing to talk about the inner workings of the Romanian military. “PTSD is not taken seriously,” says one anonymous member of the army. He served for three years in Kosovo and Afghanistan. While he did not develop PTSD, he knows about the problem. “People who get traumatized do not get the necessary support,” he says.

After the fall of the Iron curtain, the Romanian military made the difficult transition from a militia to a professional army. It’s one of the few state institutions that can still count on the trust and support of the Romanian population: It stands alone amid the deterioration of political institutions, which have long been associated with corruption and scandals, since Romanian soldiers fight side-by-side with Western armies as equals.

Weakness has no place in the image of this poor, but reliable NATO partner. Statements given by members of the Romanian army underline this fact: the Romanian soldier is “healthy, qualified, well prepared and shows no fear,” a military psychologist told the newspaper “Gândul”. Romanian humour is supposed to act as a psychological guard against the cruelties they witness, ruling out the possibility of traumatization.

Dr. Diaconu, the psychiatrist in Bucharest, disagrees. He believes the Romanian army demonstrates a “dangerous level of neglect of their own employees”, because there is no place for people suffering from PTSD to go where they can – in his words — “mentally decontaminate themselves”. This fact becomes all the more important given that trauma can also be triggered months after the experience that caused it. For example, injuries sustained in a car accident may suddenly trigger memories of mine explosions.

Veterans living with the symptoms of PTSD don’t just lack treatment options. They also may face financial problems. As cases of PTSD are not envisaged in the Romanian army, it does not offer sufferers any professional assistance. A traumatized professional soldier who has to retire from the army may find himself without financial help or employment prospects. Florian Jalaboi was granted a pension that amounts to roughly 150 euros.

This is one of the reasons why Dr. Gabriel Diaconu believes traumatized soldiers may return to war. And because the Romanian army refuses to discuss the problem of PTSD publicly, he says it accepts the fact that “time bombs” are released back into civilian life.

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Eva Konzett

Eva is an Austrian journalist with the business daily Wirtschaftsblatt. She mostly covers the CEE/SEE-region, and was a correspondent in Romania from 2012-2013. She's written for publications in Austria, Germany, and Romania.