Tackling War Trauma

June 3rd, 2009

How to handle traumatic war events has famously ranged from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — exhorting survivors of fratricidal, in some cases suicidal Civil War battles to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” — to General Patton slapping a soldier hospitalized for psychoneurosis, a term used in World War II for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now we have a general screaming at soldiers back from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that they better not dare commit suicide. “It’s bad for soldiers, it’s bad for families, bad for your units, bad for this division and our army and our country and it’s got to stop now. Suicides on Fort Campbell have to stop now,” Brigadier General Stephen Townsend recently told 101st Airborne Division paratroops, according to news reports. Townsend is the commander at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which “has recorded the highest rate of suicide in the army, with at least 11 confirmed or suspected suicides,” Agency France-Presse reported in May.

“Last year 128 soldiers took their lives, up from 115 in 2007, as tours of duty since 2001 have come ever more frequently and last longer. With 64 confirmed or suspected suicides so far this year, the army looks likely to surpass last year’s record numbers,” the AFP report added. Why so many soldiers are killing themselves should be no mystery to military leaders. “Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he believes the suicides are tied to the repeated deployments that have put a strain on soldiers and their families.” Mullen has ordered the military to “look at ways to relieve that stress.”

But the macho posture of military culture hasn’t changed much since Patton slapped a soldier and called him a coward. “In a 2008 poll by the American Psychological Association (APA), 61 percent of servicemen and women said that asking for help to treat psychological problems would have a negative impact on their career, and 53 percent said it would decrease their status among their peers,” AFP noted.

A Marine veteran of Iraq recently told a Congressional committee:

When we all come back from Iraq and we seek help from our command, they call us ‘weak’ and ‘cowards.’  The lines for a psychologist is almost a year long, and the only thing that can help us is the alcohol and the prescription pills they’re giving out to us like candy … The last thing I want to tell you is about a roommate … a Marine who was on the suicide watch for about few months on and off. The last three weeks before we were deployed, he was constantly on watch. A week before family day, when the family comes in and says goodbye to their Marines before we deploy, he was released from the watch, so that he would not say anything to his parents, and he did not say anything to them. About a month into deployment, he blew his brains out in the shower stall. Actions like that show the poor judgment of our command … The Marine should have never gone to Iraq in the first place, and nobody was held responsible for his death. If there is no care for your own Marines, what care do they have for the people of Iraq when they give the orders?

The best way of handling this crisis would be to change the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from aggressive military actions to more modest peacekeeping operations that greatly reduce the role of the military in countering small groups of militants disturbing the peace in distant nations.

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded last year in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world. US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not working, the study concluded.

In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase “war on terrorism,” researchers concluded.

Speaking from a soldier’s perspective, Vincent Emanuele, a Marine veteran, told the Congressional committee that

…the overwhelming majority of those I served with who did not think dying in Iraq was honorable or acceptable, nor did they enjoy or want to go back to Iraq a second or third time. Unfortunately, because of personal circumstances, whether they be financial or family issues, many indeed were deployed up to three times during their four-year enlistment. In fact, many, including myself, at times did not have intention of helping the Iraqis. Because of the hostile intent, as well as the loss of lives close to us, our best friends, our unit had a general disdain and distaste for Iraqis and their country. Further, our unit, for the most part, did not trust our command and had a general mistrust and distaste of this occupation from its inception onward.

I could also speak to the personal attacks veterans, including myself and many others, had to encounter once we were willing to be treated for PTSD within our unit. The idea of being a real Marine that does not complain when coming back home and who sucks it up and just does the job that we were tasked to do, this mentality resulted in many of the Marines I served with, including myself, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the horrors of this bloody occupation.

What can be done for those who have already been through the meat-grinder of the wars on terrorism? If the Pentagon can’t handle the problem, release soldiers with PTSD from active duty on medical discharges and expand Veterans Administration services. Provide assistance to veterans’ self-help groups. Goeffrey Millard, an Army veteran of Iraq, replied this way to a question by a member of Congress:

Well, in Iraq Veterans Against the War, we didn’t wait for the VA. We started a counseling group called Homefront Battle Buddies. In the Washington, D.C. chapter, which I’m the president of, we meet every Sunday at the Washington, D.C. office, our home, to meet for our Homefront Battle Buddies. That program is expanding nationally. We in Iraq Veterans Against the War have a saying, that we’re not going to wait for politicians to end the war. We ended the war every day in what we do. We also do the same when it comes to our other goals, including taking care of veterans: we’ve started counseling groups.

“The GI Bill is the start” of better government assistance, Millard continued,

but also making sure that the Veterans Administration is fully funded, making sure that there is no waiting list for PTSD care. We have seen multiple suicides this year alone on veterans who have been waiting on a waiting list to get mental healthcare at a VA. This is inexcusable. There should never be a waiting list for any veteran, especially not one so young coming home from Iraq, when they ask for mental healthcare.

For more information:

US Army base shuts down after rise in suicides, Agency France-Presse (AFP) 
Memorial Day Special…Winter Soldier on the Hill: War Vets Testify Before Congress, Democracy Now!
U.S. Should Rethink “War On Terrorism” Strategy to Deal with Resurgent Al Qaida, RAND Corporation

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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2 Responses to “Tackling War Trauma”

  1. Tom |

    The testimonies of these veterans is troubling. There’s no doubt that long, repeated tours of duty in combat are extremely stressful for both soldiers and their families. The Army and the Marines are stretched beyond reasonable limits by these wars, and we need to do something about it. Either end our involvement in one or both of them, or increase the size of the military. Otherwise, the problems these veterans are talking about can only get worse.

    This testimony took place before the Congressional Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives. This is not a regularly constituted committee of the House, and it has no oversight authority. It would be far better if a normal congressional committee also heard this testimony — that’s the only way to generate the kind of action that will make a difference.

  2. Harvey |

    Jan I agree with almost every point you make.

    Your statement: “The best way of handling this crisis would be to change the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from aggressive military actions to more modest peacekeeping operations that greatly reduce the role of the military in countering small groups of militants disturbing the peace in distant nations.” is an idea that would certainly reduce the stress on the soldiers but it seems unrealistic. War is much more than peacekeeping and to get to that peacekeeping point a lot of blood is shed — but that is certainly one fact you’re well aware of.

    It seems to me that the best way to drop the suicide rate is mandatory psychological testing before recruitment, during and after training (boot camp) and in the field — as much as possible. There certainly must be tests that can screen out those soldiers who can’t handle the necessities of war.

    In general our soldiers are treated very poorly when they return home; they should be lauded as the heroes they are, they should be given the best of everything and should have the right to go to the front of every line.

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