Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
Disclaimer: In accordance with title 17 u.s.c. section 107, this material is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.
The Sir! No Sir! Blog has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is the Sir! No Sir! Blog endorsed or sponsored by the originator. Links are provided to allow for verification of authenticity.
This article, by Martin Fletcher, was published iun the London Times, October 9, 2009
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
Many feel that they are risking their lives -- and that colleagues have died -- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.
"The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families," said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division's 2-87 Infantry Battalion.
"They feel they are risking their lives for progress that's hard to discern," said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division's 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. "They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through." The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.
The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops do not share the chaplains' assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.
"We're lost -- that's how I feel. I'm not exactly sure why we're here," said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. "I need a clear-cut purpose if I'm going to get hurt out here or if I'm going to die."
Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he replied: "If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don't."
The only soldiers who thought it was going well "work in an office, not on the ground." In his opinion "the whole country is going to s***."
The battalion's 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people's allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taliban.
They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been knocked out of action.
Living conditions are good -- abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot water, free internet -- but most of the men are on their second, third or fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne's mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state -- especially those in scattered outposts -- and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "They're tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go," she said.
Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87's Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.
A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night and cried, or played war games on his laptop. "It's a release. It's a method of coping." He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between two parked cars.
The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers. "Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere -- in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail," said Captain Rico. Even "hard men" were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.
The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. "The soldiers' biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taliban, because that almost seems impossible. It's hard to catch someone you can't see," said Specialist Mercer.
"It's a very frustrating mission," said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. "The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it's for something [worthwhile], but it's not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There's no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It's hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here."
Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: "We want to believe in a cause but we don't know what that cause is."
The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. "You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they're still going to lie to you. They'll tell you there's no Taliban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again," said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.
Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague's charred corpse from a bombed vehicle.
The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their backs. "They're a joke," said one. "You get shot at but can do nothing about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It's not enough to know which house the shooting's coming from."
The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International Security Assistance Force but "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Support Afghan Farmers."
To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. "That's very demoralising," said Captain Masengale.
The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the soldiers' private lives. "They're killing families," he said. "Divorces are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of their lives."
The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help Afghanistan. "All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving," said Captain Masengale.
"If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is successful," Sergeant Hughes said.
"You carry on for the guys to your left or right," added Specialist Mercer.
The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. "We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No one comes in and says, 'I've had a great day on a mission'. It's all pain," said Captain Masengale. "The only way we've been able to make it is having each other."
Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87's commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the enemy was the best form of defence.
He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency -- winning the allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development and good governance -- was a long and laborious process that could not be completed in a year. "These 12 months have been, for me, laying the groundwork for future success," he said.
At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.
Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
This article, by Mark Abramson,was published by Stars and Stripes, October 9, 2009
Recently released figures show Marines are taking their own lives at alarmingly high rates, and deployments appear to be taking a toll.
Through September, the Marines have recorded 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2009. Should the pace continue through the end of the year, the Marines would be facing a 20 percent increase from 2008 figures. Suicides also rose 27 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Ten suspected suicides this year remain under investigation, but those are classified as suicides because there is strong evidence to suggest that those Marines took their own lives, said Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, suicide prevention program manager for the Marine Corps.
And while a recent Marine Corps report indicates that fewer than 42 percent of Marines who have committed suicide since 2001 had a deployment history, 56 of the 80 Marines who have taken their lives in the last two years have been to the war zones. That 70 percent figure is higher than Army figures for 2008, during which 61 percent of those who committed suicide were either deployed or had a deployment history.
Marine officials said they could not pinpoint an exact cause for the increase.
But, Werbel said, "A significant contributing factor is the operational tempo."
Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, said he believes deployments are a factor in servicemembers’ suicides.
"I think current people (in the military) have been deployed multiple times and that is creating stress," Reidenberg said. "I think it is the constant ongoing battle within as well as the battle outside those men and women (in the military) are fighting."
SAVE, a nonprofit organization based in Bloomington, Minn., was created about 20 years ago to raise awareness about suicide and to help prevent it. Reidenberg spoke to 5,000 Marines about suicide prevention at a base in North Carolina in May, he said.
The Marines are taking aim at the problem with a new top-down program called NCO Suicide Prevention Training.
The program requires Marine leaders from every base to select three noncommissioned officers to attend weeklong suicide prevention training in Quantico, Va. Navy corpsmen and other Navy personnel assigned to the Corps are included in the training.
"NCOs are being trained to look out for changes in personality, distress, and changes in sleeping patterns [to spot possible signs that a person is suicidal]," Werbel said.
"We are telling NCOs, you have to know your Marines … so you can see changes in behavior."
Those enlisted leaders will then give three days of training to NCOs at the battalion level, who will in turn give a half-day of training to all other Marine NCOs.
Taking a page from the Army suicide prevent program, the Marine training includes a video presentation. In the videos, Marines who attempted suicide and family members of those who have committed suicide share their experiences.
Other parts of the program feature people acting out various situations.
"I think it can be very effective," Reidenberg said about the Marines program.
The program should have an impact, especially with the "very real" videos in this age of technology, he said. Reidenberg also praised the Marines’ top-down approach.
The Marines started to develop the suicide prevention program before this year’s figures came to light.
"The reason we started doing it is our numbers were higher for 2008 compared to 2007," said Bryan Driver, spokesman for the Personal and Family Readiness Division at the Marines Headquarters.
The Marines will have a pretty good idea if the program is working if the suicide rate drops, Reidenberg said.
"You can’t ever say for sure that it was the program, but you can definitely say there was an impact."
Like the Marine Corps suicide prevention program, the Army videos also highlight spotting signs that indicate a person may be suicidal and situations where a soldier may have to deal with a suicidal buddy.
It also trains some soldiers to be facilitators. Facilitators may not be qualified to train other soldiers in suicide prevention, but they would learn how to talk informally to other troops about the issue, said Army spokesman Wayne Hall.
"The real important thing here is to get people talking," Hall said about the Army’s program.
In addition to programs such as NCO Suicide Prevention training, the Marines — like the Army — are addressing the issue by trying to help troops get over the stigma of seeking help.
"We are really trying to bust through that stigma. This isn’t a career-ender," Werbel said.
"The career ender could be not getting help."
This book review, by Jon Letman, was distributed by the Inter Press Service News Agency, August 17, 2009
KAUAI, Hawaii, Aug 17 (IPS) - Six months into Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. public's display of antiwar sentiment has faded to barely a whisper.
Despite Obama's vow to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq before September 2011, he plans to leave up to 50,000 troops in "training and advisory" roles. Meanwhile, nearly 130,000 troops remain in that country and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Afghanistan, with up to an additional 18,000 approved for deployment this year.
So where is the resistance?
In independent journalist Dahr Jamail's "The Will to Resist: Soldiers who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Haymarket Books), Jamail profiles what may ultimately prove to be the United States' most effective anti-war movement: the soldiers themselves.
During the early years of the Iraq war, Jamail traveled to Iraq alone and reported as an unembedded freelance journalist. Over four visits, Jamail documented the war's effects on Iraqi civilians in "Beyond the Green Zone" (2007).
Although he is a fierce critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the U.S. mainstream media which he says served as a "cheerleader" for war, Jamail admits he was raised to admire the military. However, after covering the war from Iraq between 2003 and 2005, Jamail was enraged by what he calls "the heedless and deliberate devastation [he] saw [the U.S. military] wreak upon the people of Iraq."
Back in the U.S., traveling the country speaking out against the war, Jamail met scores of soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that he shared with them a "familiar anguish" which drove him to further explore their motivations as soldiers. In doing so he opens the door to a growing subculture of internal dissent that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over the edge of an otherwise ultra-disciplined, highly-controlled military society.
"The soldiers I spoke with while working on this book are some of the most ardent anti-war activists I have ever met," Jamail told IPS. "Having experienced the war firsthand, this should not come as a surprise."
In "The Will to Resist", Jamail profiles individual acts of resistance that he envisions as the possible seeds of a broader anti-war movement. The book is filled with stories of soldiers who refuse missions deemed "suicidal", go AWOL, flee abroad, refuse to carry a loaded weapon, even arranging to be shot in the leg - and those who in a final act of desperation commit suicide.
Soldiers who refuse to deploy or follow orders risk court-martial, prison time, dishonourable discharge and loss of veteran's medical benefits, yet an increasing number of active duty soldiers and veterans are willing to do so.
Rather than accept a mission almost certain to bring death, some troops simply refuse to follow orders. Jamail describes soldiers in Iraq on "search and avoid" missions who grew adept at giving the appearance of going out on patrol when, in fact, they were lying low, catching up on sleep and trying to avoid being killed.
Jamail quotes one Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as saying, "Dissent starts as simple as saying 'this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?'"
Soldiers tell Jamail that incidents of refusing orders are unremarkable and "pretty widespread," to which he responds, "It is also understandable why the military does not want more soldiers or the public to know about them."
"Army Specialist Victor Agosto, who served a year in Iraq, has recently publicly refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan," Jamail told IPS, "and the Army, due to the threat of more soldiers and the broader public learning of this, backed away from giving Agosto the harshest court-martial possible, to one of the lightest."
Jamail also dedicates two chapters to soldiers who stand up to systemic misogyny and homophobia in the military. Extensive interviews with female soldiers detail a pervasive culture of institutionalised "command rape," harassment, abuse and assault which, in a number of high-profile cases (and many more unknown) end in ostracism, coercion, demotion, suicide and murder.
Citing studies from professional medical journals that offer a grim assessment of sexual intimidation and abuse within the U.S. military, Jamail writes, "According to the group Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women in the United States will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. In the military, at least two in five will. In either case, at least 60 percent of the cases go unreported."
As Jamail recounts horrific cases of violence toward women in the military, he notes the irony of frequent claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "liberating" women of those Muslim countries.
Like female soldiers, gay and lesbian service men and women are targeted for harassment and abuse. Jamail meets soldiers who, under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, must conceal their true identity, falsely posing as straight while battling internal conflicts about their own roles in the military.
In the blunt language of the soldiers, Jamail describes the military experience as a process of dehumanisation. "The primary objective appeared to be to mistreat and dehumanise your guys [fellow soldiers]," one Marine says. "I could not do it, not to my men and not to those people. I like the Iraqis, I like the Afghanis. Why were we treating them like shit?...That is when I really started questioning what the hell was going on."
For many soldiers however, the pain of war is simply too much to bear and so they choose their own final discharge: suicide. In an emotionally exhausting chapter, Jamail cites statistics from the Army Suicide Event Report which states active duty military suicides have risen to their highest rates since the Army started tracking self-inflicted deaths in 1980, and the numbers are growing.
Documenting the phenomenon of "suicide by cop," Jamail quotes from a Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PTSD)-wracked veteran's pre-"suicide" internet article in which he wrote, "…We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out."
Contemplating the long-term implications of the more than 1.8 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail points out that the United States, for many years to come, will be faced with caring for tens of thousands of veterans whose lives are permanently marred by grave physical and traumatic brain injuries, psychological scars, PTSD, and a host of associated problems ranging from divorce and substance abuse to domestic violence, homelessness and run-ins with the law.
Other soldiers manage to cope somehow and, perhaps in a sense, recover. Following their discharge, some veterans profiled by Jamail seek to make peace with themselves by educating others about the realities they experienced in war.
The most successful and constructive of military efforts to resist war are made by those who turn their experiences into teaching tools and therapeutic exercises like music, video, theater, painting, books, blogs, photographic and art exhibitions, performance art and even making paper out of old military uniforms.
In a chapter titled 'Cyber Resistance,' Jamail contends the Internet "is probably the first time that we have available to us an inexpensive and extremely inclusive means to communicate and thereby advocate sustained resistance to unjust military action, at an international scale without losing any gestation time."
Websites like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Blogspot and countless alternative news sources have given soldiers and veterans both a voice and the means to connect with those Jamail calls "fence-sitters, members of the silent majority and well-intentioned but resource-less individuals to participate in the promise of a historical transformation."
"While we don't have an organised GI resistance movement today that is anywhere close to that which helped end the Vietnam war," Jamail said, "the seeds for one are there, and they are continuing to sprout amidst a soil that is becoming all the more fertile by the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the lack of withdrawal in Iraq, and an increasingly over-stretched military."
This article, by Penny Coleman, was posted to AlterNet, August 12, 2009
Wayne McMahon was busted on gun charges six months after he got out of the Marines.
He was jumped by a gang of kids in his hometown of Albany, N.Y. , and he went for the assault rifle he kept in the back of his SUV.
He's serving "three flat, with two years of post-release" at Groveland Prison in upstate New York.
Maybe it's tempting to write McMahon off as just a screwed-up person who made the kinds of mistakes that should have landed him in jail, but maybe that's because his injuries don't show on the outside.
Unlike physical injuries, psychiatric injuries are invisible; the burden of proof lands on the soldier (or sailor or Marine), and such injuries are easy for the public to deny.
The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder include a preoccupation with danger.
According to Jonathan Shay, a Veterans Administration psychiatrist and author of Achilles in Vietnam, hypervigilance in soldiers and veterans is expressed as the persistent mobilization of both body and mind to protect against lethal danger -- they act as though they were still in combat, even when the danger is no longer present.
That preoccupation leads to a cluster of symptoms, including sleeplessness, exaggerated startle responses, violent outbursts and a reliance on combat skills that are inappropriate, and very often illegal, in the civilian world.
When I asked McMahon what he was doing with an assault rifle in his car, he told me that since he got back from Afghanistan, he didn't feel safe without guns around.
"There was almost always a gun," he said. "In the apartment, there was guns everywhere.
"I was just over in combat, and you guys gave me an M-16 and a 9mm and let me walk around for eight months straight. And now I get back, and I get jumped by a bunch of people, and I can't have a gun?"
McMahon sits across from me in his prison greens, elbows on his knees, leaning into his story about the kid he was and the man he is hoping to become. His eagerness and optimism make it clear that he believes his mistakes are behind him.
His parents were teenagers when he was born, and they separated shortly after. He bounced around on the streets of Albany, and, like so many other young Americans with dreams of escaping dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods, he saw the military as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He enlisted in the Marines right out of high school.
For the first time in his life, McMahon found himself in a meritocracy. He was promoted regularly and quickly, making sergeant by the time he got to Afghanistan.
Then two days before his five-year contract was up, he was caught drinking on the job, busted down to lance corporal and administratively discharged. He lost all his benefits.
McMahon was in the Marine Corps from 2001 until 2006. He spent his last year working as an aircraft mechanic on a flight line in Afghanistan that was under near-constant attack. It was also a transshipment point for injured American soldiers who were being evacuated to Germany.
For eight months, his days and nights were spent up close and personal with the visceral evidence of what the rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades do to human bodies.
"We had a lot of explosions. Almost every day. And I seen guys coming out from convoy missions where their Humvees would have exploded," he told me matter-of-factly. "The first two months were pretty terrible. "
After that, even though "a lot of other people found it hard to deal with, it wasn't really too rough for me." A bit of Marine bravado, perhaps, but reinforced with a bit of liquid courage:
"We Marines, we're smart," he explained. "There was no alcohol provided, but I was making my own from fruit juice I got from the chow hall and yeast they gave us at the pizza shop. It was horrible, really horrible -- but two little 20-ounce water bottles, and you were good for the night. " It was the only way he got any sleep.
Jonathan Shay also notes the almost-universal reliance on alcohol or drugs by psychically injured veterans. They afford some temporary relief from intolerable memories and from the emotional and physical exhaustion of maintaining a constant state of vigilance.
McMahon came home from Afghanistan with a serious drinking problem, a hair-trigger temper and conditioned to rely on his combat skills for survival.
Both his marriage and his military career quickly unraveled, and then he was arrested. Nobody diagnosed his PTSD until he got to Groveland.
McMahon's obsession with safety and guns, and his compulsive drinking are both typical of a post-traumatic stress injury, but instead of diagnosis and treatment, he was left to his own compromised resources and promptly landed in jail.
In terms of the bottom line, it's a trifecta for the military when that happens. A damaged soldier is disappeared, the cost of treatment avoided and the evidence that would prove how often veterans find it impossible to readjust when they come home is erased.
Traumatized soldiers are not a military asset. They are unreliable, and can be dangerous to their fellow soldiers and to themselves. Their care can take years and be quite expensive. But because the macho culture of the military stigmatizes mental health issues, most soldiers won't ask for the help they need.
When they try to manage on their own and fail, when the entirely predictable symptoms of their injuries get them into trouble, their behavior is used to justify kicking them out of the service.
They lose all their health and disability benefits, and in the absence of treatment and support, the same behaviors that got them kicked out of the military land them in jail.
Once they enter the criminal justice system, their military service is irrelevant. Soldiers and veterans with psychiatric injuries who, like McMahon, end up in jail, are handed -- and in fact often accept -- the full burden of responsibility for their actions. And when that happens, the system gets off free.
That's what happened to McMahon, and though it's still too soon for meaningful statistics about incarceration rates among this new generation of veterans, the anecdotal evidence suggesting a predictive relationship between military experience, PTSD and trouble with the criminal justice system continues to mount .
And this is not a new phenomenon. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, published in 1990, found that more than a decade after the Vietnam conflict ended, 15 percent of male veterans still suffered from PTSD, and half of them had been arrested or in jail at least once.
Most Vietnam War veterans deployed for exactly one year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced longer and repeated deployments, and top military psychiatrists acknowledge that veterans of these new wars may have an even harder time coming home.
And instead of improving, the situation is getting worse. In 2008, the Rand Corp. estimated that 300,000 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress issues, and 320,000 others will suffer traumatic brain injuries that express many of the same symptoms as PTSD.
And although most of them will not seek treatment, even when they try the VA has made such care extremely difficult to access.
For years, the Pentagon has chosen to ignore congressional directives to screen soldiers both pre- and post-deployment.
In May, the Hartford Courant reported that such screenings are still being administered in haphazard fashion. Only 1 percent of at-risk soldiers were referred to a mental health professional prior to deployment, and post-deployment screenings continue to be a laughably inadequate box to be checked on a form.
The Courant noted that the situation has remained unchanged since the paper reported on the issue in 2007.
And for veterans, the VA's claims backlog in May was approaching 1 million, a 14 percent rise since January.
By now, the anecdotal evidence associating combat-related PTSD with crime and incarceration ought to be part of the conventional wisdom. Its accumulation over the past century should have engendered enough concern to provoke some serious attention and study.
But the reality is that nobody knows the precise number of veterans who have ended up behind bars in the aftermath of America's wars.
There are more than a few reasons why military and government officials might want those numbers to remain hidden, but certainly among the most compelling is cost.
Large numbers of veterans in prison suggest a pattern, perhaps even a causal relationship between military service and behaviors that lead to incarceration, lending support to those who argue that such behaviors should be seen as possible symptoms of a service-connected injury deserving of treatment and support rather than punishment.
When the patterns are hidden -- the numbers unavailable -- it is easier for the military to pretend that the problem is with a given individual and not systemic.
In January 2008, when the New York Times reported that it had identified 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with murder, the Pentagon declined to comment because it could not duplicate the newspaper's research.
A year later, the Army finally admitted that there might in fact be a connection between the violent behaviors of some returning service members and their combat experience. Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army, announced that in response to a spate of homicides at the Fort Carson Army base, he was “considering” conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers involved in violent crimes since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, which was finally published last week, does in fact “suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes."
And though it accuses the Army of denying necessary care to soldiers, and specifically blames commanders for proscribing access, Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, calls it “preliminary,” and insists that no causality can be inferred from the findings.
Without causality, there is of course limited accountability.
Shoomaker pointed out that soldiers themselves should bear some responsibility for failing to seek help, ignoring the fact that half of the surveyed soldiers accused of violent behaviors had been sent back to Iraq “early,” and that many of them had documented suicide issues. Schoomaker also stressed that though many soldiers claimed to have witnessed war crimes, an Army probe did not substantiate those claims.
The results of this report might have been an invaluable contribution to the public conversation about what war does to soldiers and who should be responsible for their readjustment into society. Instead, once again, soldiers are blamed for violent behaviors that are clearly symptomatic of their injuries. When individuals take the rap, there is no interrogation of the pattern. Officials remain free to dismiss and deny how many ex-service members are ending up in jail. And as long as the bodies remain hidden, they get away with it. Vets Demonized; the System Gets Off the Hook
Ed Hart has a hard time accepting official denial of a connection that to him seems more than obvious.
Hart is an 87-year-old Marine, a veteran of World War II. He is also a former president of Veterans for Peace, a retired attorney and a deeply concerned citizen.
"People like me are upset about what they did to us -- and what they continue to do to the fuzzy-faced kids they haul off to boot camp," Hart said. "Too many of those kids never made it back into reality; they were found guilty of terrible crimes and sent off to spend years in prison -- maybe all the years left to them -- and we can't figure out what happened to them?"
Hart did in fact try to figure out what was happening in the late ‘80s, when Vietnam veterans began showing up in large numbers in the criminal justice system. Along with his pro bono legal work, he began interviewing large numbers of vets in prison.
What he discovered has been corroborated by every Bureau of Justice Statistics survey since: incarcerated veterans are better educated than their non-veteran counterparts; they are more likely to have been employed at the time of their arrest; and they are more likely to be in jail for a first offense -- all of which should be factors in their favor at sentencing.
But instead, they are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans -- on average, more than two years longer -- for the same crime.
Guy Gambill, director of research and policy at the Veterans Initiatives Center and Research Institute (VICTRI), attributes this to a "know better" syndrome.
"Judges and juries, ironically, place veterans in a higher category, one with heavy moral undertones. The thinking goes that they should know better and therefore should be held to a higher standard of conduct," he said.
Hart also recognized that moral judgment, but in his days as a practicing attorney, he saw an element of demonization in the dynamic as well.
"I've seen prosecuting attorneys in their final statements point to the bewildered man at the defense table and tell the jury, ‘Look at him! He's a trained killer! We need to get him off the streets and make them safe for our women and children.' "
Mike Thomas has experienced that prejudice firsthand. Thomas did three tours in Vietnam, was wounded twice, and earned all kinds of medals, but he's doing 25-to-life at Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif., for spewing some racist bile at an Asian man over the phone.
The day he got home from Vietnam, he beat up an Asian man in a bar, and he did it again the day they let him out of jail. He was sent to a military hospital for two years with a diagnosis of Adult Situational Reaction, a diagnostic precursor to PTSD.
The military declared him "fully recovered." For 25 years, he held down a job as a sales manager.
Then, one morning, in the midst of a flashback, Thomas lost his balance. Aside from hypervigilance, the symptoms of PTSD also include flashbacks. Flashbacks can be so convincingly real that the sufferer behaves as though he or she were actually in the remembered moment.
"Everybody who's lived at the brink of terror for some time has stored that place in his memory," Hart explains with empathy. "There's always the possibility that something will take him back sometime, give him that little push that will take his balance away.
"But there ain't much more you can do to a guy on the phone worse than yell at him."
Nonetheless, the prosecutor, noting Thomas's two priors, decided to interpret his phone rant as a terrorist threat -- hence the draconian sentence.
Some might argue that Thomas's antagonism towards Asians made him an accident waiting to happen, and they're not wrong. But dehumanization of the enemy is central to how military training enables soldiers to overcome their inherent resistance to killing other human beings.
Author Jonathan Shay describes how images of the enemy were drilled into his Vietnam-era patients as a "demonized adversary … evil, loathsome, deserving to be killed as the enemy of God, and as God-hated vermin, so inhuman as not really to care if he lives or dies."
It seems a distortion of justice to send a man to prison for life because in the course of his military training a switch got flipped, making him temporarily more useful to his government.
The practice continues. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, described "the growing rage among coalition troops against all Iraqis (known derisively as 'hajis,' just as the Vietnamese were known as 'gooks')."
He quotes Sgt. Camilo Mejía, an Iraq war veteran, who explained, "You just sort of try to block out the fact that they are human beings and see them as enemies. You call them hajis, you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them."
"The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve in their country's military," Shay reminds us, "is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement and paralysis -- as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind."
"When I went to boot camp," Thomas said, "I was a good Catholic boy who'd never shot so much as a squirrel. But I turned 20, 21 and 22 in Vietnam, and that became my identity. I tried to filter life through that prism of horror, pain and loss. Not good. A recipe for disaster."
Thomas once tried suicide to escape "the despair, grief, survivor guilt, nightmares, depression, the pain of hearing my mother say she wished I had died in Vietnam so her memories wouldn't be tainted."
More recently, he asked Veterans for Peace -- by mail -- to sponsor a nationwide program for incarcerated vets. His proposal was accepted and in May, VFP Incarcerated Chapter 001 was officially incorporated at Mule Creek Prison.
Wayne McMahon was luckier in that New York state still maintains residential therapeutic programs for veterans at three of its prisons. (In 1999, there were 19, boasting a recidivism rate of 9 percent after five years compared to 52 percent for non-veterans. Unfortunately for taxpayers, those programs were consolidated for the sake of "efficiency and effectiveness.") He has taken advantage of courses in anger and aggression management, interpersonal dynamics, and substance abuse, and he has completed his training as a group facilitator.
McMahon has a job waiting for him when he gets out; he wants to go back to school; and he is going to try for a discharge upgrade from the military based on his PTSD diagnosis. The Hidden Numbers
Since its first study of the issue in 1979, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been the best source of information on the number of vets who have ended up behind bars.
According to the bureau's most recent survey, in 2004, there were 140,000 veterans in the nation's prisons -- or about 10 percent of the total prison population. By 2007, that number had risen to156,100, but the prison population overall had increased, so the relative share of vets in the population remained unchanged.
But as Baruch College's Aaron Levenstein once said, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. "
For example, the numbers above don't include veterans held in the nation's jails, or those on probation or parole. When those groups are included, according to BJS estimates, the number of veterans who were under correctional supervision in 2007 jumps to 703,000. In addition, just under 1.2 million vets were arrested in 2007.
At least some of those on parole or probation at a given point will be arrested later in the year, skewing the estimated total. But Christopher Mumola, author of the last two BJS surveys of incarcerated veterans, said "if 703,000 veterans are supervised in some fashion on a given day, and 1,159,500 arrests in 2007 involved veterans as well, that gives you a rough approximation of the maximum number of vets who are touched by the criminal justice system in a year of about 1.8 million to 1.9 million veterans."
Still, in all probability, that number under-represents the number of veterans behind bars for several reasons.
For one, Mumola points out, an inmate's military history is irrelevant to prison administrators. "(They) measure the things they operationally use or are bureaucratically accountable for. Whether someone is a veteran or not doesn't change how that inmate is handled, the privileges they have or anything like that." So prison administrators don't ask. And, Mumola added, "the federal government doesn't require them to keep those statistics."
Frank Dawson, a patient advocate at the Boston VA, has long been frustrated and dismayed by the lack of reliable numbers. Dawson says he believes veterans need support before their lives spin out of control, and, "as a national service provider, the VA can't target services unless it knows where its population is."
But Dawson, like everyone else, has been stymied in his efforts. "I keep on my desk a stack of 6,000 address labels that I got from the Department of Justice," he said. "Six thousand institutions, 6,000 egos, 6,000 systems, 6,000 sets of protocol. There is no standard intake anywhere. I keep that stack on my desk to remind me how complicated they have made it. "
In the absence of federal, state or local legislation requiring penal institutions to use standard intake procedures that include verification of an inmate's military history, veterans' advocates across the country are pressuring the courts to at least inquire about veteran status during the bail-screening process.
But Taylor Halloran, who recently retired as the VA's liaison to veterans in New York's downstate prisons and jails, said there are more than a few reasons why veterans might refuse to divulge their military background.
Halloran emphasizes that many veterans offer fake Social Security numbers or aliases at intake, or they fail to report their arrests to VA because they fear the loss of benefits -- which is at least partially true. Health care benefits are suspended for the term of an inmate's incarceration and, after 60 days, disability benefits are reduced by about half, but those too should be reinstated when a veteran is released.
Lots of veterans don't know or understand the VA's policies, many have families that depend on those checks, and the VA has a reputation for taking its time reinstating benefits after an inmate is released.
So it's sort of a devil's bargain: identify themselves and lose half of their disability benefits, or take a chance they won't get caught. But if they do, they are royally screwed.
They have to pay the government back with interest and fines, but the far more serious consequence is that they lose all future benefits, including health care, disability and education.
To many, the risk seems worth taking. A 1999 Inspector General's report sharply criticized the VA's failure to "implement a systematic approach to identify incarcerated veterans and dependents, resulting in additional past and future overpayments exceeding $170 million dollars."
A 2004 VA Performance and Accountability Report found $5.7 million in benefit overpayments in a 20 percent sample of cases, and the report noted that "tracking 100 percent of these cases would not be cost beneficial."
Halloran said he had to work to get his potential clients to come forward voluntarily. And even then, he "couldn't touch the guys the VA doesn't consider veterans -- anyone with a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge." One in six incarcerated veterans has been dishonorably discharged.
New Wars, Old Problems
Although the data are imperfect, one thing the BJS surveys do well is identify trends and patterns. For example, its last survey showed that at about 40 percent, Vietnam-era veterans still constitute the vast majority of vets in state and federal prisons.
The Gulf War involved far fewer soldiers and lasted for only six months, but at 15 percent of the veteran population in state and federal prisons, they constitute the newest wave. Veterans of the Gulf War are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as demographically comparable non-veterans.
At 4 percent of the incarcerated veteran population, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were only just beginning to show up in the 2004 BJS survey.
"It takes quite a while for these folks to show up in the criminal justice system," Chris Mumola explained. "They are out there in these conflicts, having these experiences, coming back, getting into trouble with the criminal justice system, being fully adjudicated, winding up in prison, and only then are they available to be interviewed in these surveys. It may take years and years to marinate before it really manifests itself. "
Unfortunately, the next BJS survey is not scheduled until 2012.
However difficult those populations might be to track, it would seem that if ever there was a population that should be easy to count, it's prisoners. Every one has a number. Files are kept. There are forms -- and now computerized records -- from which patterns might be gleaned.
And prisons aren't the only black holes into which our nation's damaged warriors are disappearing. They also end up in hospitals and mental institutions. They vanish beyond the margins of society when their lives, their marriages, their careers fall apart. They end up in boxes on the street, vilified, forsaken, and self-medicating. Far too many die too soon of disease, accidents, overdoses or suicide.
An honest accounting of their numbers would be ammunition for those who believe that soldiers and veterans are still not receiving the care and support they need.
It would help challenge the myth of the romantic warrior by better educating our children to the real dangers of military service. It would also contribute to a public better informed about the hidden costs of our military ventures, including the ongoing damage to our citizens and our treasury, and to our national character as well.
This article, by Sarah Netter, was posted to abcnews.go.com, July 17, 2009.
Court documents say Joshua Fry was put through boot camp despite diagnosis.
Joshua Fry's career as a Marine never should have been.
Now his recruiter and other military personnel who pushed the autistic 20-year-old through boot camp could face criminal charges.
Fry, who has a history of being abused and neglected and has a criminal record, is sitting in a cell at Camp Pendleton on disciplinary charges as the military investigates why a Marine recruiter picked Fry up from a California group home for the mentally disabled and drove him to a recruitment center to sign him up.
"An investigation into the circumstances of Private Fry's accession in the Corps, could lead to subsequent administrative or criminal proceedings against those directly involved, if warranted, " a high-ranking Marine based at the Pentagon told ABCNews.com.
The Marine, who is familiar with the Fry case, requested not to be identified, but said the Marines are prepared to hold accountable anyone who may have acted improperly during Fry's time with the military.
"The American people rightfully expect a lot of their Marine Corps," he said. "If there is a perception that something is afoul, we will aggressively root out the truth."
Experts say the case of Joshua Fry, who will face court marial on July 20 on charges of possessing child pornography and unauthorized absences, highlights a disconcerting trend of the military accepting candidates that never would have been considered a few years earlier as the forces struggle to supply the manpower for the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's hard work being a recruiter anyway," said Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based non-profit think tank. "And when you're not a successful one, it's an issue."
Asch, who is working on a study relating to recruiter impropriety and fraudulent enlistment, said failure to meet recruiting quotas, called "goals" or "missions" by the military, can result in recruiters working weekends and late hours and coming under the glare of a disapproving supervisor which, in the military, can be "demoralizing."
If recruiters miss a quota, she said, "life sucks."
U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a 13-year member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, told ABCNews.com that she had heard of the Fry case and that it might be worth a House investigation.
"I'd say that was a pretty desperate recruiter," she said.
Sanchez said it's typically the Army, not the Marines, that have had significant problems meeting beits recruiting numbers since about two years after the wars began. But now, as the Army begins its pullout in Iraq, more Marines are being called to quell rising tensons in Afghanistan.
"We certainly have put a closer look on the recruiting tactics of the recruiters during this time," Sanchez said.
As the wars drag on, Asch agreed, more soldiers, sailors and Marines are being admitted into the military service with medical and character flaws that can run the gamut from disqualifying surgeries to felonies.
"It's harder to make missions and quality has declined," Asch said.
Sanchez said her subcommittee has recommended stricter guidelines for the recruiters and set aside funds for bigger incentive bonuses to attract higher quality recruits.
Both Sanchez and Asch said the recession has actually played a helpful role in the business of recruiting, attracting well-educated yet unemployed men and women to the military.
But then the stories come in, Sanchez said, about how recruiters have been known to tell potential enlistees who have failed a drug test to stay clean for a few days and try again.
"We've seen more of a drug problem in our military," she said.
But the story of Fry's enlistment, she said, was unlike anything she's heard.
Fry was born in 1988 to a crack addicted father and a mother on heroin according to his lawyer's 35-page court motion to dismiss the charges, which was later rejected. The document details a downtrodden life that included physical and possible sexual abuse all while Fry slipped further behind in his developmental progress.
By the age of 3, according to the motion, he tested as having an IQ of 70 and was found to be anti-social and self-abusive. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 and then again as a teenager. Enlistment of Autistic Marine May Have Violated Several Recruitment Standards While in high school Fry was arrested for suspected larceny of iPods and found to have a knife. The charges were eventually dismissed and Fry was sent to what the motion describes as a "lockdown facility for youths" in Colorado to finish high school and receive treatment and counseling.
It was during this time that his legal guardian, grandmother Mary Beth Fry applied for and was granted temporary conservatorship over her grandson, the court noting that Fry, then 18, lacked the capacity to fully care for himself or enter into contracts on his own behalf.
After leaving the Colorado facility, Fry took up residence at a group home in Irvine, Calif., where he was living until his enlistment.
An assessment in 2006 by a licensed psychiatrist who treated Fry for two years noted that while the young man was high-functioning for a person with autism "he appears quite limited in his ability to think ahead of possible consequences."
That foreshadowing seemed to come true once Fry got to boot camp on Jan. 14, 2008.
"Immediately it was clear to Fry that he could not keep up with the day-to-day pace of boot camp," the motion argued. "Several times Fry informed his staff that he did not want to be a Marine. Each time he was told that was not an option."
But what was surprising to some after the fact is how he even got there in the first place.
While the words "autism" and "developmental disability" are never mentioned in the medical evaluation checklist, a Pentagon official said the disorder is considered included in section E1.25.26, which states "current or history of other mental disorders … that in the opinion of the civilian or military provider shall interfere with, or prevent satisfactory performance of military duty are disqualifying."
Other prohibited behaviors that could have disqualified Fry from the start include:
Having a perceptual or learning disorder
Inpatient treatment in a hospital or residential facility
Recurrent encounters with law enforcement agencies, anti-social attitudes or behaviors
History of "immaturity, instability, personality inadequacy, impulsiveness or dependency."
According to the document, Fry struck up a friendship with Marine Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Teson, then a recruiter, while participating in the Young Marines Program in high school. The two had spoken about Fry's possible enlistment, a discussion put on hold when he was sent to the Colorado facility.
Not knowing Fry was in Colorado, Teson called his house and spoke with Mary Beth Fry, who claims according to the court document, that she told the recruiter her grandson was autistic and had "extreme behavioral problems."
"He is not Marine material. Please take him off the list," the grandmother told Teson, according to the document.
But when Fry contacted Teson about enlistment on Jan. 4, 2008, just a few months after returning to California, Teson allegedly drove to pick up Fry from the group home for the mentally disabled where Fry was living.
The motion indicates Fry told Teson that he was autistic and asthmatic and that his grandmother had limited conservatorship over him.
"While assisting Fry in filing out the paperwork Teson instructed Fry that 'if we don't put yes, then they don't know,'" the document states regarding Teson's alleged knowledge of Fry's medical and legal complication.
Ten days later Fry was at boot camp.
On Day 13, he was caught repeatedly stealing peanut butter from the chow hall despite being admonished for doing so earlier and urinated in his canteen. He was also found to be disrespectful to his drill instructors and refused to shave or follow orders.
On Day 14, according to the motion, Fry told his senior drill instructor and staff that he had both autism and asthma and he no longer wished to be a Marine. After the Marines confirmed Fry's claims with Mary Beth Fry, she was told her grandson would be kicked out of boot camp and sent home.
But Fry wasn't sent home. Instead, he was graduated from boot camp on April 11, 2008, and sent for combat training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Marines 'Target a Very Specific Individual'
Though the Marines have a reputation for being the most stringent of the Armed Forces, Maj. Christopher Logan, director of public affairs for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and spokesman for the Western recruiting region, said the Marines are simply looking for a very specific type of recruit.
"We target a very specific individual," he said. "We're looking for the very driven individual to live up to the challenge."
Logan said he was not allowed to comment on the specifics of Fry's performance, but he did note that Fry was able to graduate from boot camp and "our training is extremely difficult."
But if Fry's time at boot camp was rough, his stint at Pendleton was even worse.
On May 26, according to the court document, Fry was found to have inappropriate images on his cell phone. The court document said Fry was subjected to five hours of interrogation and verbally ordered not to possess any similar images.
But more inappropriate images -- deemed to be child pornography from the charges leveled by military court -- were found again on July 18, 2008 and July 26, 2008 on his computer and cell phone, court documents state. That along with two instances of Fry allegedly going "UA," Marine shorthand for taking an unauthorized absence from his command, resulted in his arrest.
An additional charge of deliberate concealment was added in February, claiming fraudulent enlistment based on Fry's failure to disclose prior psychiatric treatment for a desire to look at child pornography.
Mary Beth Fry declined to comment on her grandson's enlistment or imprisonment, saying she had been advised by his lawyer, Michael Studenka, not to talk about the case. A woman who answered the phone at Studenka's office said there would be no comment on Fry's case.
But Mary Beth Fry told the Los Angeles Times that her grandson was not doing well while being held at Camp Pendleton and that she wants him released so he can get the medical treatment he needs.
"He's had a lot of problems being locked up," she said. "He's on psychotropic drugs. He's been diagnosed as bipolar and is having trouble holding it together."
Teson could not be reached for comment and is now stationed in North Carolina, no longer working as a recruiter. Logan said Teson's reassignment had nothing to do with the Fry case and was part of an ongoing rotation where recruiters work in three-year stints.
Logan said that everything relating to Fry's activities as a recruit and a Marine was under investigation, including Teson's conduct.
While criminal background checks are done on every recruit, medical records are not pulled unless for a specific reason.
That's why, Logan said, "disclosure is very, very important."
Non-disclosure on the part of the recruit or the recruiter, he said, is grounds for dismissal from the Marines or being court-martialed.
Citing the ongoing investigation, military superiors have declined to allow comment from Maj. Michael Stehle, Teson's commanding officer during his time as a recruiter in Orange County, Calif., and from the Naval battalion corpsman identified in the court document as "HM1 Sutherland" who allegedly knew of Fry's autism at boot camp.
Numbers from the Department of Defense show 2,426 claims of recruiter misconduct across the Armed Forces in 2007, the most recent data available. Of those, 593 were substantiated.
Though those figures were lower in 2007 than the previous year, data from the Army and Marines show a reversed trend, with the number of both claims and substantiated claims rising slightly from 2006 to 2007.
In the Army there were 357 substantiated claims of recruiter misconduct, up from 333 in 2006. Those figures for the Marines were 118 substantiated claims in 2007, compared to 102 the previous year.
But the number of claims compared to the number of recruitments remains very low -- .20 percent for the Army and .27 percent for the Marines in 2007. Non-Disclosure Risks Dismissal, Court Martial
Asch said that most Marines who enlist with a medical or criminal history that doesn't mesh with the ideals of military policy do so with a waiver. Studies have shown that the dissemination of waivers has increased in all branches of the armed services.
A quality study done each year by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense showed that the Army had been particularly hard hit in the area of high school graduates, with the number of recruits with a diploma dropping from 92 percent in 2003 to 83 percent in 2008.
The Marines, by comparison, dropped from 98 percent to 96 percent during the same time period.
Fry, Logan said, never got a waiver. And unless Teson would have brought concerns about Fry's history to his commanding officer -- Maj. Stehle in this case -- Teson's supervisors would have had no reason to question this recruit out of thousands that come through each year.
Dr. Wayne Fisher, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and professor of behavioral research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Monroe-Meyer Institute, has been studying autism since 1976.
He wouldn't go so far as to say a high-functioning autistic person should be precluded from the military on that diagnosis alone -- he know of some high-functioning people who became college professors -- but admitted the number of recruits with autism that would do well in that capacity would be in the minority.
Fisher has not treated Fry and could not comment on his case specifically. Some people with autism function well in a tightly regimented life, he said, "but if they're not able to function alone and they're in a facility where they're not taking care of themselves, that would be a flag."
In general autistic adults lack the ability to handle unique situations and have few friends. They are typically incapable of living a fully independent life. Many, Fisher said, find a niche working in jobs that require little social interaction such as working with machines or stocking shelves.
But for now, Fry will remain at Camp Pendleton, waiting as a judge rules on his fate and the Marines figure out why he was even there to begin with.
This article, by Maya Schenwar, was posted toTruthOut, July 16, 2009.
Neglect, mistreatment and abuse are the norm for active-duty soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown post-traumatic stress disorder into stark public light. As of the end of March, 346,393 US veterans were being treated for PTSD; 115,000 of those served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That number continues to grow rapidly.
However, PTSD symptoms don't always wait to emerge until soldiers return home. For active-duty soldiers like Airman Steven Flowers, stationed in Aviano, Italy, it can take years to receive even minimal care. And once treatment begins, the soldiers are often punished for revealing their problems.
Diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, Flowers receives only a 15-minute monthly session with a military psychiatrist - mostly to prescribe medications - and a brief monthly or bimonthly session with a psychologist. Since his diagnosis, Flowers has endured "constant harassment" within his unit, and incurs harsh punishment from his commanders for even the "slightest perceived inadequacies."
"Though I have had suicidal ideations, I am not considered a risk," Flowers told Truthout.
Flowers's case is not unique. Active-duty PTSD sufferers are subject to neglect and ridicule, according to Tim Huber, director of the Military Counseling Network.
"PTSD is a great scapegoat for the military to trot out when veterans face discrimination or have a difficult time securing jobs and making a new life in the civilian world, but while those troops are on active duty, they're supposed to simply 'soldier on' and get over it," Huber told Truthout.
This mentality leads many soldiers to conceal their symptoms for years. It also means that military leaders are resistant to signs of PTSD in the ranks. In fact, Huber considers Flowers's case lucky.
"I am actually impressed Flowers was able to receive a PTSD diagnosis," Huber said. "We work with many service members who can't even get that much recognition, and are instead simply criticized for being soft, and/or trying to get out."
The trend toward disregarding or silencing PTSD sufferers even extends to military psychiatrists, according to Chris Capps-Schubert, the Europe coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is following Flowers's situation closely.
"In the summary of Flowers's case, his military psychologist said it's a difficult position for him as a doctor, because he has conflicting interests in his role as a medical provider and his role as a soldier," Capps-Schubert told Truthout.
Flowers was experiencing PTSD symptoms well before 2007, but says he was afraid of the consequences of seeking help.
Many soldiers suffer for long periods before coming forward with their symptoms; others speak out about their condition but are denied treatment.
Army Sgt. Selena Coppa was recently diagnosed with military sexual trauma, a form of PTSD resulting from sexual harassment, assault or rape, years after her symptoms began.
"I think that the lack of initial treatment has severely impacted my life," Coppa, who served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany, told Truthout. "I was told by my therapist that my PTSD had gone from simple to complex as a result of the military environment and lack of real treatment. Military practitioners tend to be extremely unwilling to diagnose PTSD in active-duty soldiers, and thus make it more difficult for individuals to have access to treatment and care." Retention at All Costs Both Flowers and Coppa protested the military's neglect of their problems, but found little recourse for their grievances.
"I complained about what I felt was inadequate treatment, but was told there was simply no better treatment to offer me outside of the States, and they would not consider transferring me to the better treatment until I had already 'run the full course' with the less-effective treatment," Coppa said.
The military's reluctance to diagnose or treat PTSD is linked to its primary goal: retaining soldiers on the ground. Even if a soldier is only marginally able to perform, military authorities may make a strategic decision to delay diagnosis and treatment, which could lead to a discharge.
"For Flowers to be discharge-worthy, the military must feel it is better off without him," Huber said. "But there's a wrinkle. The military has to cultivate a culture of commitment. If it were easy to skip the enlistment contract and get out early, retention would plummet and America's ability to maintain the military status quo would vanish. That's why so many squeaky wheels don't get greased, and eventually crack and crumble.... I guess one could say brute retention is more important than mission readiness."
Soldiers diagnosed with psychological disorders may be reassigned to alternate duties, in place of receiving adequate treatment or a discharge. Flowers, for example, is now relegated to "meter maid" duty. He walks the Air Force base looking for parking violations, though he suffers from serious knee and back problems.
By the end of his daily nine-hour shift, he is in excruciating pain.
Coppa, who is now stationed in Germany, notes that her treatment - or lack thereof - was determined almost solely based on the "wishes of the command," not on her medical needs. Even after her diagnosis was recognized, she repeatedly met with resistance and indifference.
She also discovered that the military has startlingly few resources to deal with military sexual trauma.
"There are no domestic violence groups here in Germany, and no military sexual trauma groups," Coppa said. "They are ill-equipped to treat this form of PTSD in anything but a solo setting, which is not as helpful. Though they acknowledged I would benefit medically from a transfer to the States, one was refused."
Coppa's experience is widespread: support groups and alternative treatments are very rare. Typically, PTSD-diagnosed soldiers are prescribed medication at the outset, often with little explanation or accompanying talk therapy.
Drugs are seen as the quickest, most efficient route to retaining a soldier on duty, regardless of the consequences, according to Huber.
"The main strategy is to prescribe the problems away with pills, and as long as someone can remain upright under their own power and perform the base elements of their MOS [military occupation specialty], the military is adequately 'treating' the problem," Huber said. "If someone refuses to medicate, for fear of what they might do with live ammunition under the influence of three, four, five or more mind-altering drugs, they are simply written off as refusing the military's 'help' and not wanting to get better."
Recently, after a long fight, Steven Flowers was able to form a support group for PTSD sufferers in his unit. The group was created against the wishes of the military mental health staff, and Flowers's psychiatrist initially refused to consider the idea. Such groups are almost unheard of for soldiers on active duty.
For many service members with PTSD, the best they can hope for is the strength and luck to hold out until they return home.
"The help can be a little better after people get out and start seeing civilian psychologists, who care more about the individual then retaining a soldier who fills a slot in a unit," Capps-Schubert said.