Survive the Homecoming

As America’s service members return home, they are finding new, potentially fatal, risks on domestic roadways. Learn more so you can help.

From, by Greg Campbell, 06/01/2012 – When a car swerved in front of Brad Hammond’s vehicle and cut him off, he expected the driver to trigger a trunkload of explosives in a suicide attack. Hammond’s split-second instinct was to reach for his weapon. Only the former U.S. Army specialist was no longer stationed in Mosul or Tal Afar, Iraq. He was at home, in Denver, and there was no threat — or gun. Instead, Hammond’s wife was sitting in the passenger seat, reminding him that they were safe.

But old habits die hard. Deployed troops quickly learn to drive unpredictably — on the wrong side of the road, through traffic signals, as fast as 14,000-pound Humvees can go — to avoid potential threats, such as improvised explosive devices, which have been one of the primary causes of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Hammond, who often drove a 19-ton, eight-wheeled Stryker Combat Vehicle with a top speed of barely 62 mph, it also meant ramming other vehicles out of the way and forcing his way through traffic. “My driving style and the way we were taught was to be purely 100% aggressive,” Hammond says.

Driving Techniques in Combat…

  • Drives as far as possible from road edge to avoid IEDs.
  • Changes direction and lanes unexpectedly, especially at tunnels or underpasses – where insurgents might be waiting.
  • Always moving. Does not stop for traffic or people. Always has right of way.
  • Speeds as fast as the lead vehicle in a convoy.
  • Hyper-vigilant of roadside elements.

Become Driving Habits at Home….

  • Drives in middle of road, straddling lanes.
  • Weaves through traffic. Does not signal turns, merges or lane changes. Avoids or changes lanes at underpasses and tunnels.
  • Anxious when stopped. Rolls through traffic lights and stop signs. Does not yield right of way to other vehicles.
  • Drives over posted speed limit.
  • Overly attentive to roadside elements.

These lessons can be hard to unlearn. With their experiences fresh in their minds and mirrors, some recently returned servicemen and women struggle with typical road-safety practices, such as stopping for stop signs, wearing seat belts or even driving in their own lane. Because in a war zone, those actions could get you killed.

For former Army Reserve Sgt. Gregory Bozovich, that meant finding himself in a “go, go, go” state of mind whenever he got behind the wheel, intent on getting from point A to B as fast as possible. He remembered his time stationed in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and at home he would still scan the roadways looking for potholes, piles of garbage or roadkill — obstacles he was trained to spot as potential IEDs. Once when he was riding in his mother’s car, it backfired while stopped at a red light. He jumped out instantaneously. “It was just straight instinct. I didn’t even think about it, but I was immediately outside the vehicle and yelling at her to get out of the car,” Bozovich says.

Road Warriors

Surviving the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan does not translate well to driving on the streets of America. Fatal auto accidents are the leading post-deployment cause of death among servicemen and women, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“When you’re overseas in a combat situation, you’re taught to drive very, very differently than in the U.S.,” says Deb Pfeffer, a health systems specialist working with the Office of Policy and Planning within the VA. “They’re taught to drive more defensively and assertively than in the U.S.”

In fact, troops coming off deployment had 13% more at-fault auto accidents in the six months after they returned compared to their time before deployment, according to a just-released study by USAA. Losing control of the vehicle was the most common type of accident and was far more prevalent among young enlisted men than officers or noncommissioned officers, USAA found after reviewing at-fault auto accidents among military members who saw more than 171,000 deployments.

The “Returning Warriors” study, which covered crashes reported from 2007-2010, also found that young enlisted service members, those E1-E4, had a 22% increase in at-fault accidents after returning home from deployment than before they left, compared to a 10% increase for noncommissioned officers and 3.5% for officers. Notably, those accident rates decline over time as service members readjust to the rules of the American road.

“Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line when they deploy in service of this country, but they can face new threats to their safety when they come home and get behind the wheel,” says retired Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, president of USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Group. “We care deeply about all of our returning warriors, and we want to do what we can to keep them safe. We hope this study can help shine a light on this challenge and bring people together so we can understand it better and work toward solutions.”

Mental Triggers

Steve Woodward became interested in the driving habits of returning soldiers after watching a TV news report in which a veteran from Montana described seeing things on the side of the road that reminded him of Iraq, like trash piles and potholes. The VA psychologist, who studies post-traumatic stress, was struck by the difference between Iraq, one of the most dangerous places in the world, and Montana, one of the safest. “And yet this returning veteran was having very impactful reminders of his experiences, which caused him to misinterpret things on the side of the road,” Woodward says. “It struck me that this is an object lesson in how post-traumatic stress disorder can work.”

A colleague whose father is a veteran suggested that Woodward contact USAA to see if the company had data that could connect accident rates to soldiers’ deployments. As the largest insurer of active-duty military personnel, USAA was the right company to ask. A few years ago, it implemented a self-reporting system so that service members could alert the company when they’re deploying overseas; during their tours, soldiers can qualify for reduced insurance rates while their cars are in storage. USAA compared its accident reports to the deployment timelines to get the data.

What USAA found confirmed what Woodward was learning working with patients at the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, Calif.: Younger enlisted men in the E1-E4 rank are the most at risk. “If you’re going to target an intervention,” Woodward says, “the biggest bang for your buck is going to be looking at the lower-ranking returnees, because those are the ones who are most at risk.”

What the USAA data doesn’t reveal is why. There are many possible factors, including the likelihood that lower-ranking soldiers have increased exposure to combat situations or that younger men have less aversion to risk and less experience driving in a civilian setting. Post-traumatic stress and brain injuries also contribute, although Woodward notes that one doesn’t have to have PTSD to experience anxiety while driving.

“You don’t need to actually get blown up in a car to have some pretty powerful memories that can impact your behavior,” Woodward says.

A New Normal

Speeding cars didn’t freak out Army Reserve Col. Mike Troster when he returned to his home in Raleigh, N.C., from the Anbar Province of Iraq. In his case, it was an apple. As he drove through an orchard on a visit to a Virginia farm, the fruit fell from a tree and hit the roof directly over his head. It sounded like a grenade. He momentarily lost his cool, shouting obscenities in panic.

But his bigger problem was the difficulty he had at night. He couldn’t get used to turning on his headlights. “I had gotten so used to driving with [night optical devices],” he says. “I could pick out lizards on the side of the road.”

Because night vision gear let him see for miles in near total darkness, the far more limited area of illumination provided by regular headlights was jarring. Troster drove very slowly, apprehensive about what couldn’t be seen. His wife complained that he was overcautious after dark and no longer drove like “a normal person,” he says.

Experiences like Troster’s are, in fact, fairly normal for those returning from deployment. In a separate study of the driving habits of service members newly returned from deployment, Erica Stern, an occupational therapist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, found that 30% reported being told that they were dangerous drivers. Half said they became anxious when other cars approached quickly, and 20% said they were anxious when driving in general. In comparison, none of the nondeployed personnel who were surveyed said they were anxious while driving.

“At first we assumed that these were overtrained, over-ingrained automatic behaviors that kept people safe,” she says. “But it’s not an automatic behavior when a service member comes to a stoplight … and as they slow down or stop, they become so anxious that they cannot tolerate it. That’s because you did not stop in deployment. If you did, you were a target.”

A particular concern for Stern is that veterans whose job was driving — such as military transport operators, or “88 Mikes” — are more likely to enter the civilian workforce as drivers.

“The person who is an 88 Mike in the Army will come home and is likely to work [for] a delivery company, or long-haul or short-haul trucking, or be a cab driver,” she says. “It’s a significant issue, and I’m happy to see more attention being given to it. My greatest concern is that we not stop at defining the problem. We have to look at finding solutions.”

Breaking Patterns

Solutions, however, are proving elusive. The VA launched a safe driving initiative in 2009 featuring posters, brochures and wallet cards with driving tips, but the information was general rather than focused on returning troops. And there is no data on its effectiveness because no follow-up studies have been conducted.

Each branch of service institutes its own safety initiatives, and USAA has been sharing its findings with military safety commanders to give them hard data in their fight to help service members. “The best minds in the military have been dealing with this for four-plus decades,” says George Drew, USAA’s vice president of underwriting. “There’s no silver-bullet solution to this. You have to start with awareness.”

Both Woodward and Stern agree that one of the most effective therapies could be peer-to-peer mentoring, in which soldiers share their experiences and the techniques they use to overcome driving anxiety. One soldier, for example, taped a picture drawn by his kids to his steering wheel. Another hung air fresheners in his car that reminded him of home. Another realized that the anxiety he felt driving to work stemmed from wearing the same uniform and listening to the same rock ‘n’ roll as he did while running a daily gauntlet of potential IEDs in Kabul, Afghanistan. He began tuning in to talk radio and didn’t change into his uniform until he arrived at the base. Drew says USAA is studying ways to help its members become safer drivers, but programs are still being developed.

Hammond admits he still struggles with being aggressive on the highway and says he would benefit from a course designed to reintegrate veterans to civilian driving. Time to acclimate has helped both him and Bozovich. Still, it’s a hard transition. “I didn’t think it would be as serious as it was,” Bozovich says.

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