By Ned Hibberd
Houston (FOX 26) -
The number one killer of troops returning from combat zones is not suicide. According to the VA, it is car accidents.
Soldiers and Marines (and to a lesser extent, Sailors and Airmen) learn to "drive to survive" in foreign battlegrounds. But those same habits wreak havoc once they return.
So if you think Houston's highways are a war zone, well, you may be right. That's how the roads feel, anyhow, to military veterans just back from battle.
"It was complete culture shock coming from the military back to Houston," explained Bryan Escobedo, a former sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Escobedo had his wheels on the pavement here in Houston. But his brain was still over there.
"For a long time, when I was driving on the highway, I always thought that there was IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]. Anything that I saw on the side of the road, I'd swerve all the way. I don't know, it would just overtake me with anxiety and I sometimes had to pull over and gather myself."
Escobedo survived four IED attacks overseas. But driving habits that once saved his life were now risking his neck.
"You know, driving in the middle of the road, being uncomfortable on the side of the road," explained George Drew with military insurer USAA. "And that's due to the concerns with where IED's typically would be found."
New numbers from USAA prove the problem is real, added Drew.
"We looked at 171,000-plus deployments, and we saw a 13-percent increase in at-fault accidents" among troops that had just returned stateside.
That's a 13-percent jump, overall, in wrecks caused by post-deployment personnel.
But the risk rises 22-percent among enlisted troops. And the increase was a startling 36-percent for individuals with three or more deployments under their belts.
The good news is: what is learned can be unlearned. It just takes time.
"Looking back on it now, I just can't believe I was actually that paranoid," marveled Sgt. Escobedo.
USAA tells FOX 26 News, the raised risk of wrecks for returning troops eventually drops back down again, after they've been home for six months or more.
Bryan Escobedo made it through, without any accidents. In fact, today he says he drives more like a grandma, since he's had enough close calls for one lifetime.