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!
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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 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 Stephanie Mencimer, was originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of Mother Jones
ONE DAY in April, a 19-year-old sailor named William Kirkgaard was walking to the store at the Norfolk naval station when a man in a black Ford Mustang pulled up and asked for directions to the main gate.
Kirkgaard indicated the way, whereupon the man, who said he was a former Marine, began asking questions: Why don’t you have a car? Are you a member of the Navy Federal Credit Union?
Claiming he worked there, Kirkgaard says, the man then offered him a ride to the credit union to open an account—the first step toward buying a car.
So the sailor got in.
But an ominous feeling overtook him as the Mustang drove on and on. "I kinda thought I was gonna die at that point," he says.
The real destination, it turned out, was Tidewater Auto Brokers, a used car dealership in Virginia Beach, about 14 miles away.
Mustang Man didn’t work for the credit union, and the Marines say they have no record of his having served, either. He was a used car salesman.
Kirkgaard had maybe $20 to his name — not enough to get a taxi back to the base, much less buy a car.
He’d only been in the Navy 10 months and had never bought a car without his parents. He didn’t even have a driver’s license on him, which meant he couldn’t legally drive off the lot.
Still, Mustang Man, whose real name is Jesse Neely, eventually persuaded him to test-drive a 2005 Dodge Stratus with 78,000 miles and a $10,000 sticker price. It shook violently and the "check engine" light flashed.
Kirkgaard told Neely he didn’t want the car, he says, but he naively agreed to give the dealership his personal information. Afterward, employees asked him to sign some paperwork; the sailor obliged without much thought.
"Congratulations," they told him. "You just bought a car."
Kirkgaard says he tried to return the Dodge the next day, but the dealership told him (falsely) that it was illegal to cancel a sales contract in Virginia.
A saleswoman did offer to reduce the price to $7,900—hardly a deal given the car’s roughly $6,000 blue-book value.
Kirkgaard, out of desperation, signed the new contract. He then left the car in the parking lot with the keys inside and sought assistance from a lawyer back at the base. He was legally on the hook for the full price, plus 15 percent interest.
"I’m screwed," Kirkgaard told me soon after.
Mustang Man has been busy, apparently. Kirkgaard knows another sailor who was delivered to Tidewater after Neely allegedly offered him a ride to the movies.
That sailor ended up paying $11,000 for a 2005 Dodge Neon he didn’t want. He, too, abandoned it at the dealership the next day, prompting Tidewater to phone the sailor’s superior, Chief Electrician’s Mate Larry Gordon.
"They called me up saying they wanted to press charges against him because he left the car there," Gordon told me. "They are really preying on these sailors."
Tidewater’s owner did not return calls seeking comment. When I informed Neely of the complaints, his immediate response was, "Jesus, are you serious?" He admitted he’d picked up the sailors, but claimed they came voluntarily and seemed eager to buy.
"If he’s over 18 years of age and he’s willing to sign a contract," the salesman argued, "I don’t see how you can be forced."
So many young enlistees have been targeted in recent years that some officers now call predatory dealers a threat to national security. Yet authorities ranging from local prosecutors to state regulatory boards to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the military itself have done relatively little to address the proliferation of dubious auto sales-and-credit tactics. (Many used car dealers make more money selling loans than selling cars.)
"I wish there were some aggressive enforcement of the consumer protection laws, especially where military personnel are involved," says Steve Lynch, a Coast Guard attorney who has seen many a Coastie get stung.
Beyond saddling service members with debt, sour car deals can result in bad credit, making it hard for soldiers to obtain the security clearances they need to get promoted.
Hard-sell tactics can even affect unit cohesion, says Dwain Alexander II, a Navy Legal Services lawyer at the Norfolk naval station, if a superior officer lures recruits to a dealership for a fee — a common occurrence.
"If you can’t trust the guys who your life depends on," he says, "that’s really bad."
THE HAMPTON ROADS region of southeast Virginia, home to 14 major military installations, is overflowing with used car dealers.
They hang their shingles here by the dozens, feeding on a steady supply of 18- to 22-year-old enlistees giddy at the prospect of their first real paycheck. "The guys buy the cars as soon as they get here," says Alexander. "There’s a beach. They can’t pick up girls without a car."
One showroom a stone’s throw from the Little Creek naval base lures sailors with pool tables and the promise of free lunch for those who bring a few friends.
Others feature video games and big-screen TVs, bikini car washes and Hooters nights featuring all-you-can-eat wings. (The slogan on Tidewater’s website: "All Military. All Ranks. 0 Down.")
When such promotional strategies fail to put boots on the lot, some dealerships resort to more aggressive methods like bird-dogging —t he illegal tactic of paying service members and others to drag their buddies down to the lot, or local cabbies to bring in kids who arrive at the airport fresh from boot camp.
One local dealership even convinced a USO volunteer to forward contact information for the newbies coming in at Norfolk International Airport.
Salespeople would then call and claim, say, that the recruit had won a prize, and would he like to come down and collect it?
Kirkgaard’s story isn’t even the worst of it.
In 2004, a Norfolk-area dealership called Carland lost its license for essentially kidnapping young Marines from bases in North Carolina and northern Virginia.
The victims had made the mistake of calling "Kim," a name listed on business cards someone had sprinkled around Camp Lejeune and other bases. (It stood for "kids in the military," military lawyers later discovered.)
The card promised discounts, and when Marines called, Carland sent an employee to pick them up and drive them to its lot nearly four hours away.
It was a one-way trip; the hapless grunts were told that they’d have to buy a vehicle in order to get back to base and not be declared AWOL. One stressed-out Marine paid $23,000 for a 1997 Civic, nearly quadruple its value.
Navy lawyer Alexander sees a steady stream of sailors trapped in bad car deals.
They make particularly good targets for credit shenanigans, since the government makes it easy for dealers to garnish wages when an enlistee defaults on a loan.
The upshot, Alexander says, is that his clients typically overpay by at least $2,000, often enough to trigger chronic money woes.
FOR ALL ITS war-fighting skills, the military is ill equipped to take on a bunch of unscrupulous businesspeople.
While its lawyers can help individual soldiers, litigation is expensive and time-consuming. Alexander says his office sued a dealer called Hollywood Wholesale Inc. a few years ago, but the owner simply changed the business name and transferred the property to his brother. Alexander won a $50,000 judgment plus $25,000 in attorney’s fees, but only managed to collect $3,000. "Getting a judgment against a car dealer is extremely difficult," he says.
The military isn’t without options. Most bases have disciplinary control boards that can declare a dealership off-limits, making it a crime for service members to patronize it. But while effective — it wreaks havoc on sales — this off-limits designation is rare.
Commander Art Record, vice chairman of the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board for the Hampton Roads area, says the board first gives dealers the opportunity to change their practices.
In the last year, seven Norfolk-area dealers have appeared before the board, but only one is currently off-limits, and that dealership has closed its doors.
The brass has also taken steps to educate enlistees, who now get some financial literacy counseling in boot camp.
"It’s so unfair to put all of the burden on the troops," says Rosemary Shahan, president of the California nonprofit Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, who has been fighting sleazy dealers since the 1970s. "They have enough to worry about. They’re protecting us. We need to step up and protect them."
FEDERAL LAWMAKERS have been more inclined to protect the dealers, a politically savvy bunch who doled out more than $9 million to federal candidates during the 2008 election cycle alone.
In 1982, after the FTC ordered auto dealers to post signs on used vehicles, disclosing any known defects, the dealers squealed and Congress eviscerated the new rule.
The commission hasn’t tried anything so bold since.
In any case, the feds have limited authority. Regulation of auto sales falls largely to state dealer boards. But the dealers, who have even more clout in local and state politics, tend to dominate.
Virginia, for instance, requires that dealers hold 16 of the 19 seats on its board.
The current board can, and occasionally does, revoke a dealer’s license or impose fines for illegal practices, but it has only 11 investigators to monitor nearly 3,600 dealerships. In most cases, it doesn’t take action until after a consumer successfully sues the dealer, and even then, only if the dealer fails to pay.
People in the industry "know what they need to do to stay legal," says Bruce Gould, the board’s executive director. "There’s a moral problem with it, but not a legal one."
The regulatory vacuum has allowed notorious operators to flourish.
Take Charlie Falk, a Virginia used car legend with a lot on the highway that runs between the Little Creek naval base and Oceana naval air station.
In 1977, Falk served several days in jail for rolling back odometers. In the 1990s, his business was the target of a racketeering suit that accused him of "churning" — selling at inflated prices and quickly repossessing the vehicles after customers missed even a single payment.
His dealerships would then resell those cars while suing the original buyers to collect on their high-interest loans.
Falk ultimately settled the racketeering case, which involved thousands of customers, by paying $400,000 in damages and writing off $10 million in loans.
Despite all this, state regulators have never shut down any of Falk’s lots, nor has the military ruled any of them off-limits.
Local politicos have also left Falk alone, although Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) alerted the Navy last year after a Falk dealership unleashed a 30-minute infomercial featuring hot chicks in military uniforms. (The dealership yanked the ads when the military threatened to charge it with improper use of a uniform.)
Tom Domonoske, a Virginia lawyer who specializes in consumer credit, says better policing is needed, not just of dealerships but also of the finance industry. Here’s why: Suppose a customer with decent credit is eligible for a loan at 7 percent interest. If a salesman can convince the customer to accept a 10 percent rate — a feat Domonoske says many dealers accomplish by lying — he can then sell the loan to a bank or finance company and pocket the extra 3 percent as a perfectly legal kickback.
This percentage cut encourages dealers to inflate sales contracts with pricey add-ons and even to falsify loan documents so that customers qualify for more loan than they can afford.
Banks and finance companies have largely turned a blind eye to these practices, Domonoske says. Many sell the loans to Wall Street, so what does it matter if the customer defaults? The easy credit, Alexander argues, "funds criminal conduct, bird-dogging, and provides incentives for the overpricing of vehicles for massive profit to dealers."
CASE IN POINT: In April 2008, Raenitra Mackingtee, then a 19-year-old enlistee at the Norfolk naval station, wanted to trade in her 2006 PT Cruiser for something with better mileage. She visited Diamond Motorcars, a Virginia Beach dealer, and settled on a 2002 Honda Civic priced at $15,000.
But Mackingtee still owed more than $19,000 on the Cruiser. No problem, the salesman said. He’d pay off her loan, credit her $10,000 for the trade-in, and get her a bigger loan to cover the balance on the Cruiser loan plus the price of the Honda. After taxes, fees, and add-ons, the grand total came to nearly $27,000.
The salesman had her log in to her account at the Navy Federal Credit Union—which, despite its name, is a private company.
Then, Mackingtee says, she let him fill out an online loan application on her behalf.
The credit union approved her loan at 12.25 percent interest, but when she picked up the loan check, something was wrong.
The promissory note listed a 2006 Dodge Charger. "I was like, I didn’t get no Dodge," Mackingtee told me later. When she phoned the dealer to see how this phantom car had ended up on her loan application, the salesman obfuscated. He insisted she bring in the check anyway, because they’d already sold her trade-in.
If she didn’t buy the Honda, she’d have no way to get to work on the base. So she did.
A few months later, the credit union sent Mackingtee a letter seeking the Charger’s title as collateral. She couldn’t produce it, of course, so the bank jacked up her rate to 18 percent. This raised her monthly payments from $515 to $600—not insignificant for someone making $1,680 (plus a housing allowance) before taxes. Desperate, she contacted Alexander at Navy Legal Services, who explained that no bank would make a $27,000 loan for a Honda with a blue-book value of $9,800.
The salesman knew she wouldn’t qualify, Alexander believes, which is why he listed a $25,000 Dodge on the loan application.
While Mackingtee’s problem might seem clear-cut, the dealer has refused to make things right.
Alexander hasn’t been able to help much, either; since she allegedly let the salesman use her account, it’s her word against his. Diamond’s sales manager insists his staff did nothing wrong. "If anyone’s lying, she is," he says. The credit union, meanwhile, won’t budge on the interest rate—if Mackingtee, who recently gave birth to her first child, defaults, the lender can simply garnish her wages.
And though she notified the Virginia Beach police of the incident, nothing has come of it.
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.