Coming home in painby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Lloyd Cheney wanted to pursue a law enforcement career after his tour of duty in Iraq. Because of a lingering back injury, he's stuck behind a desk at a government job instead.
The injury has sometimes left Cheney feeling helpless and vulnerable. He must rely on his wife to do chores as simple as feeding their three cats. And even the littlest tasks at work have proven dangerous: After reaching for a folder on the floor recently, Cheney had to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital with extreme back pain. He was out for a month.
"I was reaching for it correctly, but something happened," said Cheney, 41, who lives in Hastings and served with the Minnesota National Guard's 682nd Engineer Battalion and was in Iraq for a year starting in early 2004.
"Living with the injury, it affects everything," he said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often conjure up images of firefights and roadside bomb blasts that result in gunshot wounds and torn off limbs. But more troops suffer musculoskeletal injuries than any other type of injury while serving overseas.
"These other injuries are equally important, because they end up having lifelong problems and complications," said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, director of strategic communications for the Military Health System.
Related: War injuries by the numbers
Musculoskeletal injuries have already led thousands of troops to file disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the VA, back and neck strains, arthritis of the spine and limited leg-bending are among the most common physical disabilities for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Back or shoulder pain, ankle and knee problems and other muscle and joint issues can stem from a variety of battle and non-battle activities. Kilpatrick said many of the issues are caused by the weight a soldier must carry while out in harm's way -- body armor and gear like ammunition, guns and water.
Soldiers carrying that extra weight can injure themselves simply by running or jumping, Kilpatrick said. Falls can also easily lead to injury, he said.
"If people are involved in any kind of combat issue or blast, you get the secondary injury of falling with all that weight on them," Kilpatrick said.
Cheney said the body armor and gear he wore weighed nearly 50 pounds. His work in Iraq included carrying out raids and searching for and destroying weapons caches and improvised explosive devices. He was exposed to many blasts, several of which were a bit too close for comfort.
"We ended up driving through one explosion," Cheney said. "It was nothing too severe, but you get snapped around."
Cheney said that incident, along with the day-to-day walking and crouching with heavy gear, took a toll on his back. But he said the body armor acted like a sort of brace, causing him not to notice any pain until after he was back at the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina.
"The back issue was almost immediate," he said. "As soon as we took off the body armor my back was starting to spasm."
Cheney is now on a treatment plan that includes physical therapy and high doses of anti-inflammatory medication. Surgery is a possibility, but it would be highly invasive and there's only a 60 percent chance it would work, he said.
Not being able to do the things he used to be able to do has led to other problems. "It's caused kind of a lack of caring about everything," Cheney said, noting that he gained a lot of weight after returning from Iraq.
The VA is trying to encourage Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to file claims even if they regard their injury as minor. Otherwise, an injury can get worse or hurt a veteran's morale, said Anna Long, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Say you can't do things with your kids or you have knee joint problems and can't bend down. Those are things that impact life," Long said. "That can affect you more ways than just physically."
Another way the VA is working to improve access to benefits is by having veterans fill out claims forms as soon as they arrive back in the U.S., even if they're not currently suffering from any injuries or ailments.
"Somebody can claim that they have a back problem and at the same time they don't," said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the VA in Washington, D.C. "They're just trying to establish that something happened to their back, and they want to be sure that the VA has their medical records."
If a health issue shows up years later, the VA already has the records and can more quickly respond to a veteran's request for benefits, he said.
It's likely some members of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division now returning from Iraq will eventually seek disability benefits -- about 28 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with disabilities are Guard and Reserve members.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 157 Minnesota Army National Guard members have been wounded in action, according to the National Guard Bureau. But that number doesn't include non-combat incidents such as vehicle accidents. It doesn't count people like Cheney, either.
At his home in Hastings, Cheney is trying to lose weight, which should help the strength exercises, massage and other therapies be more effective. If none of that works, he'll have to think again about surgery.
Despite the injury, Cheney said he's happy he got a chance to serve his country as a soldier.
"It's all I wanted to be since I was a little kid," he said. "I would have liked to go back."