Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Heart of Darkness

I had no job training. All I know how to do is kill people.

- Kenneth Eastridge

I know the Army would like to say it is not responsible for this, that it didn’t train them to do this. But that is bullshit. They trained them to kill, then when they didn’t have enough men for the surge, they pushed these guys until they broke, then threw them away.

- Michael Needham

The Colorado Springs Gazette has run a harrowing series on military personnel returning home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and committing violent crimes at an astounding rate. It centers on one unit in particular, based out of local Fort Carson. These particular soldiers become destructive and dangerous to those around them, and of course themselves. Meanwhile, the stigma and hazing about seeking PTSD treatment adds a tremendous obstacle, and PTSD treatment itself remains too scant. Even if you've heard quite a few PTSD and war stories, this series will likely hit you. This is not pretty stuff, but it's very important, and I'd recommend reading the whole thing.

"Casualties of War, Part I: The hell of war comes home"

"Casualties of War, Part II: Warning signs"

Eric Martin posts on the series in "Losing Hearts While Losing Your Mind," on what all this means for COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine and warfare in general. Gary Farber covers it in "What Our Wars Do to Our Soldiers," and has been spreading the word on the series, so thanks to him.

The Editor's Note for the series gives a good overview:

For as long as wars have been waged, soldiers have been sent to kill or be killed. The lucky ones survive. Some return home unscathed; others are shell-shocked and emotionally scarred for life.

That’s been true forever. But something changed in Iraq. Thanks to modern medicine, transportation and gear, soldiers survived injuries that would have killed yesterday’s troops. They patrolled streets without battle lines, where smiling civilians waved one day and silently watched ambushes the next. Multiple deployments moved soldiers from war to home and back, again and again.

Most found a way to cope. But in one Fort Carson unit that took heavy casualties, men began to break. Some recall war crimes. Some came home, to Colorado Springs, and kept killing.

Those killings have prompted Fort Carson to re-examine how it treats soldiers. For the first time, the Army is demanding that commanders look for signs that a soldier is in trouble. This issue is of particular concern to the Pikes Peak region. When soldiers come home, they bring the baggage of intense, prolonged brutality.

Today, following months of interviews with soldiers and their families and the examination of medical and military records, court documents and photographs, The Gazette presents the first of a two-day report that retraces the steps of the soldiers who ended up behind bars.

A word of caution: The details of battle are graphic, and the language of soldiers is, at times, profane.

Even supposedly "good" or "necessary" wars involve death and destruction, and exact a high cost on at least some of the troopers that fight them. As the Gazette's editors note, it has been ever thus. It's reprehensible to ignore any of that. It's one of many reasons why going to war should never be considered lightly, and why every idiot or scoundrel such as Bill Kristol who blathers about the 'glories of war' should be forced to spend time with some combat veterans. Better yet, the Kristols can "debate" them on the air, or better still, be kept off the air altogether when they don't know what they're talking about or don't care about the costs. The warmongers should be challenged - and at the very least, as a nation we should be providing good mental health care and training for anyone we do send into a combat zone.

I don't want to diminish the impact of the Gazette series at all, because there's not enough being done to help prevent and treat PTSD, but there is hope. Via Balloon Juice, here's a piece from the Wall Street Journal :

It's a touching story, although Luis Carlos Montalvan's marriage broke up before he got to this point. Even with treatment, it's generally not an easy road to recovery. Regardless, best wishes to him and to everyone in his situation.

His story does point to the importance of connection and friendship (whether human or animal). However, in the Gazette series, and in the PTSD stories we covered at Blue Herald, a few trends emerged. When military personnel return home suffering from PTSD, their friends and family often don't know what's going on. More importantly, even if when they do, they just aren't equipped to help on their own, and when they seek aid for their loved one, they can't get it. The military does assist some troopers on this front, but too frequently has not been helpful or just isn't set up to respond to the pressing concerns of a trooper's family member or spouse. It's also dismaying to see that, almost 100 years since WWI, many of the same attitudes toward "shell shock" or PTSD – viewing it as a lack of courage and character – are still oppressively prevalent in military culture. Some of that is to be expected, but the brass should know better, and that attitude just has to change.

There have been studies on combat stress (featured in the book On Killing, among other places) that show that, without sufficient R&R and recuperative time, almost everyone will eventually break. The stop-loss programs and the accelerated rotations of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan don't help at all. PTSD, and an increase in it, is an natural and predictable response to that – a natural response to a highly unnatural situation. In a combat zone, many troopers (as in the Gazette series) cope by hardening. That may work in the short term and may even be necessary for sheer survival. There may be a small percentage, adrenaline junkies and lifers, for whom that approach also works in the long haul (The Hurt Locker is the latest film to delve into that). But the Gazette series follows some adrenaline junkies who still break or become dangerous to themselves, their unit, the civilian population abroad, and their community at home. Long-term, it seems that the only "cure" for prolonged exposure to such inhumane, unnatural, extreme situations is a steady dose of humanity, or doggie love, or art, or something else positive, connecting and centering. Most troopers with PTSD can't handle it on their own, and their family and friends can only do so much without greater assistance. More of the Pentagon's roughly half-trillion yearly budget needs to go to this. It's unconscionable to send anyone into a war zone without proper preparation and gear, and without a commitment to pick up the pieces afterward, as best as can be done.

The PBS special Coming Home, which featured muppets, Queen Latifah and John Mayer, did a good job of explaining the difficult situations of PTSD and war wounds to young kids (I've linked it earlier, although unfortunately only clips seem to be online). There's one section in the aired program interviewing a young girl whose PTSD father is distant, more than he himself would like – but he's still pretty numb. His daughter explains, with some anxiety, how she wants to give him something really special for his birthday - so that he'll understand that she loves him. I dare anyone to watch that section without being hit in the gut. There are human costs to warfare that go far beyond yellow ribbons, chest-thumping bravado and the more soulless types of pundit blather. Inhumanity and dehumanization are simply too easy to choose, and there is a moral obligation as a society and nation to heal those wounds where we can. We have to do better.

1 comment:

Michele Rosenthal said...

Wow, GREAT compilation of combat stress media coverage!

And you're right -- not enough coverage is ever given to the success stories.

There are many PTSD survivors, military and otherwise, who are healing. Let's hope someday the spotlight turns on them to shine some hope for the others.