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A hug is duct tape for the soul.

 
The Buffalo News, by Lou Michel, Wednesday, December 19, 2007 --

You can see the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in their empty shirt sleeves, the scars on their heads, in their eyes so weary from sleepless nights.

They return to their homes, trying to fit in again. Most will. Too many will not.

At least 25 local soldiers, four Marines and one sailor have been killed overseas since the war on terror began. Less known are the local veterans returning home with broken bodies or troubled souls.

Some 30,434 men and women in uniform have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Pentagon does not say where they are from, so it’s unclear exactly how many of the wounded hail from Western New York.

Almost 1,700 of those veterans have sought medical treatment at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo since 2003, with a majority seeking help for war-related injuries.

There are probably many more local veterans seeking medical treatment who are not counted in VA enrollment figures because of their status as citizen soldiers. Reservists and National Guard members often have access to private health insurance provided by from their civilian employers, according to VA officials in Washington, D.C.

But for the veterans who are trying to adjust while under the care of the local VA, the navigation of a sometimes unresponsive bureaucracy adds to the pain of life beyond the combat zone.

More than 600 of the 1,659 veterans treated here sought assistance for posttraumatic stress and other psychological readjustment troubles, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It is a full-time job working on getting whole, getting medical treatment and benefits,” said Bill Biondolillo, who served two combat tours in Iraq for a total of 14 months.

“We go and do the dirty work and we have to carry that, while the rest of the country goes on with life,” said Biondolillo, a major in the Reserves.

The list of injuries local veterans seek treatment for is frightening:

• Exposure to Russian-made bullets with depleted uranium in the shell casings. This can cause tumors, skin ailments and respiratory problems.

• Traumatic brain injuries and concussions from blasts, as well as shrapnel from explosive devices.

• Damage to the neck, back and hips from carrying as much as 100 extra pounds of body armor, ammo and other equipment.

• Irritable bowel syndrome and gastric illnesses caused by stress and living in unsanitary conditions.

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