Few Americans truly understand the struggles our veterans faced overseas in recent wars, and in past conflicts like Vietnam. Part of the experience was a generation of veterans returning home with chronic pain problems. While millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain, many are veterans who brought the unfortunate souvenir back from war. According to a May 2011 study by the American Pain Society, about nine in 10 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who registered for care with the Department of Veterans Affairs are experiencing pain. More than half of these veterans have significant pain, the study asserted. In raw numbers, of the 291,205 who enrolled for VA health care between October 2003 and December 2008, 141,029 received a diagnosis of a painful condition not caused by cancer.
Despite the media attention given to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the number one malady suffered by America’s active duty military personnel is musculoskeletal. With all the injuries suffered by troops, it comes as no surprise that chronic pain is a frequent problem among returning military personnel from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
This is not a new trend, however. Vietnam veterans have suffered a variety of sustained and chronic injuries and afflictions, including exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. Many of these veterans have been living with chronic pain for more than 40 years, and the access they have to medications and treatments is often the difference between being productive and bedridden.
We can help veterans, both young and older, by ensuring they have access to improved treatments and medications to better manage their chronic pain.  The fact is every person experiences pain differently and responds to treatments in different ways. Whether the pain stems from head trauma, spinal-cord and eye injuries or an amputation, there must be a variety of options available to treat the unique symptoms our veterans are experiencing. But the rise in prescription drug abuse threatens to stifle these options for fear of the further spread of abuse and misuse. We must not let that happen.
Make no mistake, prescription drug abuse is a major concern within the veteran community and we support proactive measures to educate veterans of this threat and to encourage responsible prescribing to ensure these medicines stay out of the hands of those who abuse and misuse the drugs. But we cannot allow for the abuse dynamic to restrict veterans’ access to the highest quality medications and treatments needed to relieve their pain.
Prescription medicines are not the only solution for every veteran. But for those who need them, they are critical. Together we can ensure our warriors can live long and productive lives, even if they have to manage pain. Access to quality health care and new options for treatment will protect the next generation of Americans coming back from war from experiencing the same challenges of past generations.
Let us not stand in the way of our heroes resuming and fulfilling their dreams.
Berger is executive director of the Veterans Health Council for Vietnam Veterans of America.