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 Victor Agosto, was posted to the Rag Blog, November 11, 2009
President Obama visited Fort Hood today [Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009]. He dropped by Michael Kern's barracks. Michael handed President Obama a letter, saying, "Sir, IVAW has some concerns we'd like for you to address." Obama then dropped his hand and went on to speak to the next soldier. The secret service then took possession of the letter:
In your recent comments on the Fort Hood tragedy, you stated "These are men and women who have made the selfless and courageous decision to risk and at times give their lives to protect the rest of us on a daily basis. It's difficult enough when we lose these brave Americans in battles overseas. It is horrifying that they should come under fire at an Army base on American soil." Sir, we have been losing these brave Americans on American soil for years, due to the mental health problems that come after deployment, which include post-traumatic stress disorder, and often, suicide.
You also said that "We will continue to support the community with the full resources of the federal government." Sir, we appreciate that -- but what we need is not more FBI or Homeland Security personnel swarming Fort Hood. What we need is full mental healthcare for all soldiers serving in the Army. What happened at Fort Hood has made it abundantly clear that the military mental health system, and our soldiers, are broken.
You said "We will make sure that we will get answers to every single question about this terrible incident." Sir, one of the answers is self evident: that a strained military cannot continue without better mental healthcare for all soldiers.
You stated that "As Commander-in-Chief, there's no greater honor but also no greater responsibility for me than to make sure that the extraordinary men and women in uniform are properly cared for." Sir, we urge you to carry out your promise and ensure that our servicemembers indeed have access to quality mental health care. The Army has only 408 psychiatrists -- military, civilian and contractors -- serving about 553,000 active-duty troops around the world. This is far too few, and the providers that exist are often not competent professionals, as this incident shows. Military wages cannot attract the quality psychiatrists we need to care for these returning soldiers.
We ask that:
Each soldier about to be deployed and returning from deployment be assigned a mental health provider who will reach out to them, rather than requiring them to initiate the search for help.
Ensure that the stigma of seeking care for mental health issues is removed for soldiers at all levels-from junior enlisted to senior enlisted and officers alike.
Ensure that if mental health care is not available from military facilities, soldiers can seek mental health care with civilian providers of their choice
Ensure that soldiers are prevented from deploying with mental health problems and issues.
Stop multiple redeployments of the same troops.
Ensure full background checks for all mental health providers and periodic check ups for them to decompress from the stresses they shoulder from the soldiers they counsel to the workload they endure.
Sir, we hope that you will make the decision not to deploy one single Fort Hood troop without ensuring that all have had access to fair and impartial mental health screening and treatment.
You have stated on a number of occasions, starting during your campaign, how important our military and veterans are to this nation. The best way to safeguard the soldiers of this nation is to provide ALL soldiers with immediate, personal and professional mental health resources.
This article was posted to the We Move To Canada Blog, September 25, 2009
In light of Bill C-440 in support of US war resisters in Canada, there's a letters-to-the-editor battle raging in several newspapers from BC to St. John's. I've been receiving the letters by email, and let me tell you, the other side is out in full force with mouths foaming.
If you support Bill C-440, and believe people who refused to participate in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq should be welcome in Canada, please take a few minutes and write to your local newspaper.
Since the right-wing's main talking point amounts to "...but they volunteered," you might want to address that non-issue.
One, soldiers volunteer to protect and defend their country, not to invade and kill a civilian population, and not to blindly follow illegal orders. International law recognizes that it is not only a soldier's right to refuse illegal orders, but his or her responsibility.
Two, many of the war resisters volunteered, served, and have no legal way to leave the military. They didn't volunteer to be owned for the rest of their lives.
And finally, why is conscription vs volunteer even an issue? It wasn't in the Vietnam era. Thousands of the war resisters Canada welcomed in the 1960s and 1970s had volunteered for service. When they saw what was really happening in Vietnam, they changed their minds, but the US military wouldn't let them leave. Canada let them in - and let them stay.
Another theme is that allowing war resisters to stay in Canada is somehow an insult to Canadian troops. But Canada refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq. The vast majority of Canadians oppose the US war against Iraq. Canada didn't force its troops to fight that war. Welcoming Iraq War resisters to Canada has no bearing on the Canadian forces - or on any other soldier who serves willingly.
Please take five minutes and write a letter to the editor of your local paper. If you don't know the address, look on the website. Small-town newspapers are as important as their big city cousins.
The other thing you can do to help is to either donate $10 or $20, and/or circulate the link for our new Fundable campaign. Please post it on your own blog, on Facebook, Twitter, to email lists you're on. So far the Fundable campaign is going nowhere. We need the money to pay our legal bills, so war resisters won't be deported.
Supporting war resisters is a concrete way you can support peace.
You are now watching: Episode Four - Broken Soldier
Why are so many veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan psychologically damaged? Is it the natural trauma of war, or the product of military whose mission is to occupy and suppress the civilian population? Zollie Goodman recounts the racism against Iraqis imbued in his unit, while Kris Goldsmith reveals the hatred that finally made him a "broken soldier," caught in the endless web of the Veterans Administration. And the parents of Jeffrey Lucey mourn their son, one of thousands who could no longer live with what he had become.
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 Jeremy Schwarz, was posted to the Austin American Statesman, August 15, 2009.
KILLEEN — Past the barber shops advertising $6 military cuts, weapons stores and used car lots, an anti-war coffeehouse occupies a small wooden house on a corner of Texas' biggest Army town. Six months after opening, the Under the Hood cafe has become home to a growing number of veterans and active-duty soldiers who are beginning to question America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less than a mile from the gates of 53,000-troop Fort Hood, the cafe is a place where soldiers, many of them fresh off of multiple deployments, can swap stories and ideas without fear of retribution, its supporters say.
It has also become a refuge for soldiers who are refusing to deploy — or are thinking about it — including Spc. Victor Agosto, who last week was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing an order. Another Fort Hood soldier, Sgt. Travis Bishop, an Iraq veteran who has applied for conscientious objector status, was sentenced Friday to a year in federal prison for refusing to deploy with his unit to Afghanistan.
Not since the heyday of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse, the hub for the anti-war movement in Killeen during the Vietnam War, has such an enterprise thrived here. But unlike its predecessor, which closed in 1972, Under the Hood has for its driving force a newcomer to the peace movement, a 17-year Army wife with no history of activism.
The cafe is run by Cynthia Thomas, a former stay-at-home mom who didn't become politically active until 2007, when her husband, a Fort Hood soldier, was sent on his third deployment to Iraq. Thomas said she was furious about his deployment; she said her husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies from a previous tour. When her stepson decided to join the Marines, she said she felt compelled to take a stand against the war.
At first she sought to connect to a group in Killeen. But finding no anti-war organizations in her adopted hometown, she stumbled on Code Pink, a group of anti-war activists from Austin. She became involved with the group and eventually crossed paths with former and current Fort Hood soldiers active in a local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
With help from an original staff member of the Oleo Strut, they hatched the idea of a coffeehouse near the Army post. But making it happen proved harder than Thomas imagined.
"We went through four Realtors and just got stonewalled," Thomas said. "At the end we just said we wanted to do an outreach center, which was true, because if you said a peace house they didn't want anything to do with it."
Despite the initial resistance, Thomas said the response has been positive at the cafe, a homey place lined with couches and a help-yourself coffee bar.
"We've had no negativity from the soldiers that come in," she said. "At first they come in and they're looking around and a little uncomfortable, but then they come back. They feel they can come and talk to the regulars and get that peer support."
Most of the soldiers at Under the Hood are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder; some are suicidal or self-medicating heavily with alcohol or drugs, Thomas said. The most extreme cases are referred to a counselor in Austin.
Others just need a place to curl up on the couch for a few hours or feel safe from the ridicule they say they would receive in their barracks for talking about their feelings and ideas.
"If you come home and you don't feel anything about (what you've gone through), then there's something wrong with you," said Malachi Muncy, who served two tours in Iraq with the Texas National Guard and is a regular visitor to Under the Hood. "It's helped me get over my issues, mainly by talking with people with the same issues. It's nice to be around other soldiers who aren't going be like, 'Suck it up.' "
Muncy drove a 42-wheel super heavy equipment transporter during his first tour of Iraq in 2004, as U.S. troops began seeing a surge in roadside bombings. "It was a really bad time to be driving a truck," he said.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and says he struggled to adjust when he returned. He eventually decided to volunteer for a second deployment.
"I said, 'I don't have to adjust; I can just go back to Iraq,' " he said.
Bobby Whittenberg is another Iraq war veteran who often talks with active-duty soldiers at the coffee shop. A former Marine who now lives in Austin, Whittenberg was shot in Iraq in 2004 and said he faced harassment and ridicule when he sought help for his post-traumatic stress disorder from military officials.
"They were like, 'You're letting your brothers down; you're scared to go back,' " said Whittenberg, a Purple Heart recipient.
After leaving active duty in 2006, Whittenberg moved to San Antonio to be closer to the Veterans Affairs hospital there. He has become something of a mentor to younger soldiers.
"I personally try to challenge them to think for themselves," he said. "They're in a very authoritarian, hierarchical lifestyle where it becomes very difficult to challenge authority."
Several active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood who go to Under the Hood said that despite the Army's efforts to reduce the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, soldiers who seek help are still labeled bad apples by some superiors. One soldier, who would not give his name because he feared retribution, said the Army needs to do more to support soldiers when they return from war.
"When you get back, you're released, and it's like, drink as much as you can and party," he said. "No one tells you that just makes you feel more depressed."
In recent years, military officials have sought to place more attention on the mental health of returning soldiers. At Fort Hood, officials have opened a Spiritual Fitness Center, which seeks to help soldiers and their families deal with the stresses of multiple deployments. That's part of a larger Resiliency Campus, which Army officials say will help combat alarming numbers of soldier suicides. And Fort Hood's commander, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, has also talked frequently of removing the stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental health help.
But some solders say places like Under the Hood play a vital role.
"I know soldiers who said, 'If I didn't have the coffeehouse, I would have killed myself,' " said James Branum, an attorney who has represented about 20 war resisters around the country.
Bishop, the sergeant who was court-martialed for refusing to deploy, said the coffee shop provided much-needed friendship.
"They support you whether your decision is to deploy or to resist," he said. "People think that it's an anti-military place. That's not true at all. It's incredibly pro-soldier. They are just against these wars."
Under the Hood is among a handful of what supporters hope is a growing number of GI coffeehouses around the country. Similar cafes have opened outside of Fort Lewis in Washington state and Fort Drum in New York.
It's still a far cry from the Vietnam era, when some 20 GI coffeehouses such as the Oleo Strut sprang up near military bases around the country and were credited with crystallizing the GI anti-war movement. The Killeen coffeehouse operated from 1968 to 1972, receiving visitors such as Jane Fonda and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan and producing an underground newspaper, according to Thomas Cleaver, a member of Oleo Strut's original staff who helped Under the Hood get on its feet.
Supporters at Under the Hood say the current conflicts are different: During Vietnam, many soldiers were draftees and more likely to be open in their opposition to the war.
"We know this is a different time and a different war," said Fran Hanlon, an Under the Hood board member from Austin. "We had trepidation (about opening the cafe), but we were also really excited about the potential."
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 Kevin Graman, was publiahed in the Spokesman-Review, August 9, 2009
The number of Spokane-area veterans who killed themselves in a one-year period is far greater than the Spokane Veteran Affairs Medical Center knew at the time, a VA investigation has found.
The VA’s Office of Medical Investigations discovered that from July 2007 through the first week of July 2008, at least 22 veterans in the Spokane VA service area killed themselves, and 15 of them had contact with the medical center.
Spokane VA had previously reported nine suicides and 34 attempted suicides in that time period. All of them had some contact with the medical center.
“The methods and sources routinely being utilized by the medical center to identify veterans who have committed suicide may be inadequate,” a report by the VA medical inspectors said.
The suicides came amid heightened concern for the mental health of soldiers and veterans nationally. In response, VA facilities have strengthened protocols for identifying patients at risk of suicide.
The inspectors’ report was released late last week by the Veterans Health Administration to Spokane resident Steve Senescall, after a year spent trying to find out more about the death of his son, Lucas Senescall. The young man’s body was found hanging in his Spokane home a few hours after he sought psychiatric help at the Spokane VA.
Although the report was completed on Feb. 4, Senescall did not receive it until late Thursday, hours after The Spokesman-Review called VA headquarters and the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray with inquiries about the father’s efforts to obtain the information.
On July 7, 2008, Steve Senescall accompanied his son – who had a history of mental illness, including a previous suicide attempt – to the medical center’s psychiatric ward, where Lucas was seen by Dr. William L. Brown.
Rather than admit Lucas, Senescall said, the psychiatrist had the veteran make an appointment for an office visit in two weeks.
“I want to know why, when he was rocking back and forth in his chair with his hands over his mouth to keep from crying, he sent him home,” Senescall said.
Senescall’s suicide was the 15th in a little more than 12 months by a veteran who had at least some contact with the Spokane medical center.
The discrepancy between the nine deaths reported earlier by the Spokane VA and the 22 noted in the medical investigators’ report came as a result of the medical center comparing death records from the Spokane County medical examiner with records from all three branches of the VA – the Veterans Health Administration, the Veteran Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery System.
Medical center officials had gathered the information to make it available to inspectors when they arrived for a two-day visit on July 23, 2008. “Up until this time we did not have a systematic way of determining all the veteran suicides that occurred in our catchment area,” said Dr. Gregory Winter, head of behavioral health at Spokane VA.
The investigation found that other veterans who had not had contact with the medical center had killed themselves. The total number of veteran suicides likely would be much higher had the investigation checked all death records in the region served by the medical center, which provides care for 215,000 veterans from Wenatchee to Kalispell, Mont.
The heavily redacted report cited numerous exemptions under the federal Freedom of Information Act protecting the privacy of victims and their VA health care providers. It also cited an extraordinary exemption protecting the VA from disclosure of medical quality assurance review records.
The report was so redacted that it is difficult in most cases to determine the extent of an individual veteran’s contact with Spokane VA, much less what action was taken to protect the veteran from himself. Medical center Director Sharon Helman said Friday some of them may have been enrolled as VA patients but failed to show up for health care.
The report identifies each veteran only by a number. Nevertheless, details provided in several cases closely match the circumstances of veterans who have previously been identified by The Spokesman-Review.
References to Veteran 1 match what is known about Senescall. The report concludes that VA staff should have attempted to interview him alone and should have offered him hospitalization.
“The medical center should peer review the care provided to Veteran 1 and appropriate actions should be taken based on the findings,” the report said.
Helman declined to say whether any disciplinary action has been taken as a result of any of the suicides.
“Reviews were done and appropriate actions were taken,” Helman said.
The description of Veteran 2 matches the case of Richard Kinsey Young, a 35-year-old Navy veteran who killed himself in April 2008 after a 16-month struggle with back pain and depression.
“This … veteran did not appear to have a well-coordinated pain management plan to assist … with intractable pain until a few days before death,” the report states.
The report appears to conclude that several of the veterans who killed themselves were being treated for pain, which may have contributed to their suicides.
Statistics gathered at the Spokane VA in 2006 showed that nearly 70 percent of infantry soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan sought treatment for musculoskeletal injuries related to carrying too much gear.
The most common complaint was lower back pain, reported by 54 percent of the soldiers, a previous Spokesman-Review investigation found. Two of the veterans who killed themselves were Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, including Spc. Timothy Juneman, a 25-year-old National Guardsman and former Stryker Brigade soldier who was injured in a roadside explosion in Iraq.
Juneman hanged himself at his home in Pullman, where he was taking classes at Washington State University after being released from inpatient suicide watch at the Spokane VA in January 2008. He apparently received no follow-up care by VA staff. Brown was the psychiatrist who released Juneman. In records obtained by Juneman before his death, Brown wrote that Juneman was apparently despondent over imminent redeployment to Iraq with the Guard, his family has said. Because of privacy laws, the VA was unable to notify the Department of Defense about the medical condition of “active veterans” such as Guard and Reserve members.
Among the recommendations of the medical inspectors was that the VA and Department of Defense “should determine under what circumstances patient safety should take priority over patient privacy, e.g., reservists being treated by the VA who is in no physical/mental condition to deploy.”
The inspectors made numerous other recommendations on how the medical center could better identify and care for veterans at risk of suicide, most of which already had been implemented before the report’s release, Helman said.
“Every one of the recommendations was supportable and something we needed to implement,” Helman said. “We have aggressively taken action to improve care to veterans.”
This article, by Dahr Jamail and Sarah Lazare, was posted to TomDispatch, August 9, 2009
Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.
For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life -- but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room. "
Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."
Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."
Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad." "Not Many Have This Opportunity." According to Major Virginia McCabe, spokesperson for the 82nd Airborne Division, AWOL soldiers are confined to the holdover section at the 82nd Replacement Detachment at Fort Bragg if they are deemed a flight risk. She offered no criteria, however, for just how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she said. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is taken. Or they might say they made a mistake and return to serve."
Normally, soldiers on a legal "hold" of some kind end up in platoons like Echo. It may be because he or she is seeking a medical discharge, switching assignments, or waiting for a court martial to be convened.
Echo Platoon, however, seems to be made up of a contingent of wayward soldiers the military does not know what to do with. Captain Kevin Thaxton, commander of the 82nd Replacement Detachment, of which Echo Platoon is a part, offers this explanation:
"While the entire replacement detachment contains 500 soldiers, there are 40 AWOLs in Echo and about 20 in for holdovers/personnel issues and post-UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Punishment, totaling about 60 people.
"Some are given the opportunity to go back with their unit and deploy. Those who accept do not exactly have their records cleared, but they do get to start over, keeping in mind we know this person has had problems before. We don't advertise that they went AWOL, but the commanders and the NCOs know about it. Not many have this opportunity. It depends on how long they've been AWOL. You have to say OK, would I trust a person who decided they didn't want to serve at one time, someone who is always on the fence?"
"Having a Head Full of Insanity"
One soldier in Echo Platoon, Specialist Dustin Stevens, had gone AWOL before the invasion of Iraq, and did so because he was opposed to all wars. On turning himself in, he's been in the holdover section for six months now awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. He may not be halfway through his purgatory. Others in the platoon have been held for more than a year in a no man's land of small-scale arbitrary punishment in which, according to soldiers in Echo Platoon, officers in charge regularly verbally abuse them as well as make physical threats
Kevin McCormick describes his experience this way: "You're less than human to the commanders. [They act as if] you don't deserve to be alive. A sergeant told us he wanted to take us out and shoot us in the back of the head. We get threatened all the time there."
On being questioned about such threats, Captain Thaxton played it safe. "I can't confirm or deny verbal abuse," he responded. "It depends on if a person is angry after something has been done."
On average, two new soldiers are assigned to Echo Platoon every week, according to Stevens. Resigned to a long wait, Stevens sums up life in the platoon this way:
"I've been here almost seven months, and only a few people have gotten out during that time. There was a Purple Heart veteran who was here and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence. One guy, gone for 10 years, got two years in prison without pay, although he had a newborn daughter. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, our sentence does not take into account the time served here. Some of us get paid, albeit the E1 or entry level wages, but I'd gladly give them the money back if I could go home...
"[Soldiers in Echo Platoon] don't... get the benefits others get. You are pretty much a prisoner. You can't do anything. They say you are not confined, but you can't go more than 50 miles off post. It's almost impossible to get leave unless in dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
Downplaying the punitive nature of the platoon, Captain Thaxton admits only that "people who get in trouble are restricted to post. It keeps them from getting in fights with other soldiers. However, they are allowed access to Post Exchange [shopping], the chapel and dining facilities along with a 50-mile radius for travel."
Thaxton repeated several times that soldiers in Echo Platoon "can go to behavioral health [care]." While the soldiers themselves admit this is true and that they do have access to mental-health care, they say it is of very poor quality. Doctors, they claim, just focus on "drugging them up," rather than giving them adequate therapy in order to help them deal with their specific problems. The platoon's soldiers regularly confide suicidal urges to each other.
In Echo Platoon the deleterious effects the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are having on ordinary soldiers are clearly visible. By December 2006, it was already estimated that that 38% of all Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had served multiple tours of duty. By October 2007, the Army reported that approximately 12% of all combat troops in Iraq were coping by taking antidepressants and/or sleeping pills.
In April 2008, the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think-tank, released a study stating: "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression."
Like others who have turned against America's wars after multiple deployments to Iraq, Michael St. Clair has his regrets:
"I had always idealized the military, like we were going out to fight the Nazis, and had real moral high ground. When I got over [to Iraq], I was shocked by the brutality. My whole first tour, I can honestly say I never saw an Iraqi guy who deserved to die, who had weapons or was attacking us or anything. In many instances American soldiers took really bad decisions that killed innocent Iraqis. I had a hard time reconciling that with what I had thought I would be doing. By the time my second tour was over, I had morphed into a killer. A lot of people don't understand what war actually is. I don't know what's worse: being charged with felony or having a head full of insanity."
On St. Clair's return from his second tour, the military did a post-deployment health assessment, and six months later a reassessment. That is when his PTSD symptoms began to appear, and he was prescribed medication for depression. According to St. Clair, when he reported a panic attack, he was told he would not be sent to sniper school, and that he would not be given any further training because he was considered too unstable, which made him a danger to the country. Nevertheless, his military psychiatrist was, he claimed, pressured by higher ups to declare that he had a pre-Army personality disorder and was not suffering from PTSD. In despair, he went AWOL for 10 months before turning himself in.
His story is one more instance of the troop-unfriendly and skewed practices of the military machine. Diagnosed with PTSD, he was finally given a medical discharge for a personality disorder in an effort by the military to continue their systematic denial of the psychologically destructive effects of war. Staying AWOL After his deployment to Iraq, Kevin McCormick went AWOL because he felt suicidal and wasn't getting the help he needed. While in Iraq, he says, "I had a lot of problems back home. My mom had recently passed away. When I asked for help it got pushed back in my face. Even the Inspector General denied me treatment." (Essentially, the Inspector General represents a soldier's last recourse in attempting to correct a problem. If the IG refuses to help, there are few alternatives available.)
When, after four-and-a-half-months AWOL, McCormick turned himself in, he was offered absolution if he agreed to serve again, an absurdity not lost on him. "They offered me that deal," he exclaims, "when it was a known fact that I had issues with my mental care. They offered me a chance to go back to the unit!" His refusal to do so left him languishing in Echo Platoon for eight months until he finally received a medical discharge.
Even though his decision to go AWOL was in no way a protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is now opposed to it. "I personally don't feel we need to be in Iraq and I've been there and seen it firsthand. I think the U.S. being there is pointless."
His blunt advice to soldiers who go AWOL and intend to turn themselves in is, "If you're AWOL, fuck going back."
Staff Sergeant Nelbach will have spent over nine months in Echo Platoon by the time he is tried in October. His court martial will in all likelihood bring further punishment. Due to his higher rank and the fact that he was a platoon leader, Nelbach is in charge of making sure that soldiers in the platoon follow through on their work assignments. He also accompanies people to medical appointments and does necessary paperwork. He is thus seen by other platoon soldiers as the one who runs the place. Yet he is aware that none of this will help him when he comes to trial. "It's inhuman," he insists. "There's no fairness to it. It's always been mass punishment there." Warehousing Soldiers Assigned to Echo Platoon in January 2009, Dustin Stevens continues to bide his time awaiting charges that might still be months away. "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. We're all so lost and wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong. By reading or talking to people all of the time I try to stay out of this place in my mind… There are people here who should be in mental hospitals."
James Branum, Stevens' civilian lawyer, is also the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) which offers training to the legal community and information about G.I. Rights and military law to service members and their families. He says AWOL troops make up three-quarters of Echo platoon and that medical cases are the bulk of the remainder. Accustomed to inordinate delays from the military, he says, "People are in this unit for months and months. The [authorities] take forever to do anything. You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, twelve if you're not."
On the legality of such detention without trial, Branum comments:
"I think there are some illegal elements about how they are running the place, but the general concept is not illegal. You have people there with legitimate medical and psychological issues, but instead of proactively helping them, the military shuffles them off to this replacement [detachment] to be treated like dirt. They are told they have no rights when they do have a right to talk to their commander, to have an attorney, and to talk to Congress. Echo, if run properly, would be a good thing. Not so when people are being warehoused and told repeatedly they have no rights. That is illegal."
As for the military's goal in running Echo Platoon and other similar units at military bases around the country:
"To me it doesn't seem productive. Oftentimes, the military doesn't know what it is doing. There isn't a logical explanation for this. Maybe deterrence is one. Other soldiers see these guys being ill treated and don't want to resist. They also want to break and wear people down so they'll deploy rather than keep resisting. The Army isn't true to its own processes at times. If their goal is to get folks deployable, this isn't the way. You don't want guys with physical or psychological issues to deploy."
In 2008, USA Today revealed that more than 43,000 troops listed as medically unfit had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan anyway. A Yardstick of Desperation In a discussion of her group's role in dealing with the legal holding of soldiers, MLTF co-chair Kathleen Gilberd commented:
"Fort Bragg is not an isolated situation. Placement in legal-hold [detachments] where soldiers languish for months is common to all the services. What we're seeing is the command not making up their minds. Their indecision has severe consequences for those with open-ended medical issues because they cannot avail themselves of help until their legal situation is resolved."
Chuck Fager, the director of the Fayetteville Quaker House (the town of Fayetteville adjoins Fort Bragg) claims that the military is primarily focused on "making numbers" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Orders from the Pentagon say you have to send X [number of] troops," he points out. "The military does not have them and is constantly looking around for where to get them. One potential pool is the mass of soldiers gone AWOL. Eventually they either go back or get picked up... We are guessing [military officials] think they can persuade a significant number of these AWOL soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. "
The U.S. still maintains more than 130,000 soldiers in Iraq and, by year's end, will have at least 68,000 in Afghanistan, a figure likely to rise in the years to come.
Think of Echo and other platoons like it as grim yardsticks for measuring the desperation in which a military under immense strain is now operating. Looking up at that military from Echo's airless limbo, from a world of soldiers who have fallen through the cracks of a system under great stress, you can see just how devastating America's two ongoing wars have been for the military itself. The walking wounded, the troubled, and the broken are now being pressured to reenter the fray.
If Chuck Fager is right, the future is bleak for the members of Echo Platoon who endure deplorable conditions with little idea about whether their future involves charges, trial, deployment, or medical release. It is a painful irony that some of those who volunteered to serve and defend our nation are now left particularly defenseless and vulnerable as a direct consequence of its ill advised foreign adventures.