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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This article, by Glenn Greenwald, was published by Salon Magazine, October 24, 2009
Something very unusual happened on The Washington Post Editorial Page today: they deigned to address a response from one of their readers, who "challenged [them] to explain what he sees as a contradiction in [their] editorial positions": namely, the Post demands that Obama's health care plan not be paid for with borrowed money, yet the very same Post Editors vocally support escalation in Afghanistan without specifying how it should be paid for. "Why is it okay to finance wars with debt, asks our reader, but not to pay for health care that way?"
The Post editors give two answers. They first claim that Obama will save substantial money by reducing defense spending -- by which they mean that he is merely decreasing the rate at which defense spending increases ("from 2008 to 2019, defense spending would increase only 17 percent") -- as well as withdrawing from Iraq. But so what? Even if those things really happen, we're still paying for our glorious, endless war in Afghanistan by borrowing the money from China and Japan, all of which continues to explode our crippling national debt. We have absolutely no ability to pay for our Afghan adventure other than by expanding our ignominious status as the largest and most insatiable debtor nation which history has ever known. That debt gravely bothers Beltway elites like the Post editors when it comes to providing ordinary Americans with basic services (which Post editors already enjoy), but it's totally irrelevant to them when it comes to re-fueling the vicarious joys of endless war.
The Post attempts to justify that disparity with their second answer, which perfectly captures the prevailing, and deeply warped, Beltway thinking: namely, escalating in Afghanistan is an absolute national necessity, while providing Americans with health care coverage is just a luxury that can wait:
All this assumes that defense and health care should be treated equally in the national budget. We would argue that they should not be . . . Universal health care, however desirable, is not "fundamental to the defense of our people." Nor is it a "necessity" that it be adopted this year: Mr. Obama chose to propose a massive new entitlement at a time of historic budget deficits. In contrast, Gen. McChrystal believes that if reinforcements are not sent to Afghanistan in the next year, the war may be lost, with catastrophic consequences for U.S. interests in South Asia. U.S. soldiers would continue to die, without the prospect of defeating the Taliban. And, as Mr. Obama put it, "if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
Actually, a recent study from the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance documented that "nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance" in America. Whatever the exact number, nobody doubts that lack of health insurance causes thousands of Americans to die every year. If you're Fred Hiatt and you already have health insurance, it's easy to dismiss those deaths as unimportant, "not fundamental," not a "necessity" to tend to any time soon. No matter your views on Obama's health care reform plan, does it really take any effort to see how warped that dismissive mentality is?
But it becomes so much worse when one considers what we're ostensibly going to do in Afghanistan as part of our venerated "counter-insurgency" mission. In an amazingly enlightening interview with Frontline, military expert Andrew Bacevich explains what that supposedly entails:
I think the best way to understand the term "counterinsurgency" is to understand what the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps today mean by that term. What they mean is an approach to warfare in which success is to be gained not by destroying the enemy but by securing the population.
The term "securing" here means not simply keeping the people safe, but providing for the people a series of services -- effective governance, economic development, education, the elimination of corruption, the protection of women's rights. That translates into an enormously ambitious project of nation building. . . .
John Nagl says that in effect we are engaged in a global counterinsurgency campaign. That's his description of the long war.
Now, think about it. If counterinsurgency, according to current doctrine, is all about securing the population, if securing the population implies not simply keeping them safe but providing people with good governance and economic development and education and so on, what then is the requirement of a global counterinsurgency campaign?
Are we called upon to keep ourselves safe? To prevent another 9/11? Are we called upon to secure the population of the entire globe? Given the success we've had thus far in securing the population in Iraq and in Afghanistan, does this idea make any sense whatsoever?
Can anybody possibly believe that the United States of America, ... facing a federal budget deficit of $1.8 trillion ... has the resources necessary to conduct a global counterinsurgency campaign? Over what? The next 20, 50, 80 years? I think [there] is something so preposterous about such proposals. I just find it baffling that they are treated with seriousness by supposedly serious people.
So according to The Washington Post, dropping bombs on, controlling and occupying Afghanistan -- all while simultaneously ensuring "effective governance, economic development, education, the elimination of corruption, the protection of women's rights" to Afghan citizens in Afghanistan -- is an absolutely vital necessity that must be done no matter the cost. But providing basic services (such as health care) to American citizens, in the U.S., is a secondary priority at best, something totally unnecessary that should wait for a few years or a couple decades until we can afford it and until our various wars are finished, if that ever happens. "U.S. interests in South Asia" are paramount; U.S. interests in the welfare of those in American cities, suburbs and rural areas are an afterthought.
As demented as that sounds, isn't that exactly the priority scheme we've adopted as a country? We're a nation that couldn't even manage to get clean drinking water to our own citizens who were dying in the middle of New Orleans. We have tens of thousands of people dying every year because they lack basic health care coverage. The rich-poor gap continues to expand to third-world levels. And The Post claims that war and "nation-building" in Afghanistan are crucial while health care for Americans is not because "wars, unlike entitlement programs, eventually come to an end." Except, as Bacevich points out, that's false:
Post-Vietnam, the officer corps was committed to the proposition that wars should be infrequent, that they should be fought only for the most vital interests, and that they should be fought in a way that would produce a quick and decisive outcome.
What we have today in my judgment is just the inverse of that. War has become a permanent condition.
Beltway elites have health insurance and thus the costs and suffering for those who don't are abstract, distant and irrelevant. Identically, with very rare exception, they and their families don't fight the wars they cheer on -- and don't even pay for them -- and thus get to enjoy all the pulsating benefits without any costs whatsoever. Adam Smith, all the way back in 1776, in An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, described this Beltway attitude exactly:
In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . .
Lounging around in the editorial offices in the capital of a rapidly decaying empire, urging that more Americans be sent into endless war paid for with endless debt, while yawning and lazily waving away with boredom the hordes outside dying for lack of health care coverage, is one of the most repugnant images one can imagine. It's exactly what Adam Smith denounced. And it's exactly what our political and media elite are.
This documentary was released in six parts, between February and August 2009, by Robert Greenwald. As the President considers his options, following a blatantly fraudulent Presidential election and an ever increasing US/NATO/Afghan death toll, the same group of chicken hawks (the Project for a New American Century and their Coterie of neo-conservative war-mongering fools and high ranking brass who were responsible for the Iraq war are now calling for a massive increase in US troops beyond the 17,000 mentioned in the film, the questions and issues raised in this film are brought into sharp focus.
Part One: Afghanistan + More Troops = Catastrophe
President Obama has committed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. This decision raises serious questions about troops, costs, overall mission, and exit strategy. Historically, it has been Congress' duty to ask questions in the form of oversight hearings that challenge policymakers, examine military spending, and educate the public. After witnessing the absence of oversight regarding the Iraq war, we must insist Congress hold hearings on Afghanistan.
Part Two: Pakistan: "The Most Dangerous Country"
The war in Afghanistan and its potentially catastrophic impact on Pakistan are complex and dangerous issues, which further make the case why our country needs a national debate on this now starting with congressional oversight hearings.
Part Three: "Cost of War"
As we pay our tax bills, it seems an appropriate time to urge everyone to Rethink Afghanistan, a war that currently costs over $2 billion a month but hasn't made us any safer. Everyone has a friend or relative who just lost a job. Do we really want to spend over $1 trillion on another war? Everyone knows someone who has lost their home. Do we really want spend our tax dollars on a war that could last a decade or more? The Obama administration has taken some smart steps to counter this economic crisis with its budget request. Do we really want to see that effort wasted by expanding military demands?
Part Four: "Civilian Casualties"
When foreign policy is well-reasoned, we see attention given to humanitarian issues like housing, jobs, health care and education. When that policy consists of applying a military solution to a political problem, however, we see death, destruction, and suffering. Director Robert Greenwald witnessed the latter during his recent trip to Afghanistan--the devastating consequences of U.S. airstrikes on thousands of innocent civilians.
The footage you are about to see is poignant, heart-wrenching, and often a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.
We must help the refugees whose lives have been shattered by U.S. foreign policy and military attacks. Support the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an organization dedicated to helping women and children, human rights issues, and social justice. Then, become a Peacemaker. Receive up-to-the-minute information through our new mobile alert system whenever there are Afghan civilian casualties from this war, and take immediate action by calling Congress.
Part Five: "Women of Afghanistan"
Eight years have passed since Laura Bush declared that "because of our recent military gains, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes" in Afghanistan. For eight years, that claim has been a lie.
The truth is that American military escalation will not liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead, the hardships of war take a disproportionate toll on women and their families. There are 1,000 displaced families in a Kabul refugee camp, and they're suffering for lack of food and blankets. A few weeks ago, you generously gave $6,000 to help and $9,000 more is needed to take care of all 1,000 families. Thats a donation of $15 per family to provide the relief necessary for their survival.
Here's what your money will buy:
Part Six: "How much security did $1 trillion buy?"
The war in Afghanistan is increasing the likelihood that American civilians will be killed in a future terrorist attack.
Part 6 of Rethink Afghanistan, Security, brings you three former high-ranking CIA agents to explain why.
There is no "victory" to be won in Afghanistan. It is the most important video about U.S. Security today.
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.
This article, by Maya Schenwar, was posted toTruthOut, July 16, 2009.
Neglect, mistreatment and abuse are the norm for active-duty soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown post-traumatic stress disorder into stark public light. As of the end of March, 346,393 US veterans were being treated for PTSD; 115,000 of those served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That number continues to grow rapidly.
However, PTSD symptoms don't always wait to emerge until soldiers return home. For active-duty soldiers like Airman Steven Flowers, stationed in Aviano, Italy, it can take years to receive even minimal care. And once treatment begins, the soldiers are often punished for revealing their problems.
Diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, Flowers receives only a 15-minute monthly session with a military psychiatrist - mostly to prescribe medications - and a brief monthly or bimonthly session with a psychologist. Since his diagnosis, Flowers has endured "constant harassment" within his unit, and incurs harsh punishment from his commanders for even the "slightest perceived inadequacies."
"Though I have had suicidal ideations, I am not considered a risk," Flowers told Truthout.
Flowers's case is not unique. Active-duty PTSD sufferers are subject to neglect and ridicule, according to Tim Huber, director of the Military Counseling Network.
"PTSD is a great scapegoat for the military to trot out when veterans face discrimination or have a difficult time securing jobs and making a new life in the civilian world, but while those troops are on active duty, they're supposed to simply 'soldier on' and get over it," Huber told Truthout.
This mentality leads many soldiers to conceal their symptoms for years. It also means that military leaders are resistant to signs of PTSD in the ranks. In fact, Huber considers Flowers's case lucky.
"I am actually impressed Flowers was able to receive a PTSD diagnosis," Huber said. "We work with many service members who can't even get that much recognition, and are instead simply criticized for being soft, and/or trying to get out."
The trend toward disregarding or silencing PTSD sufferers even extends to military psychiatrists, according to Chris Capps-Schubert, the Europe coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is following Flowers's situation closely.
"In the summary of Flowers's case, his military psychologist said it's a difficult position for him as a doctor, because he has conflicting interests in his role as a medical provider and his role as a soldier," Capps-Schubert told Truthout.
Flowers was experiencing PTSD symptoms well before 2007, but says he was afraid of the consequences of seeking help.
Many soldiers suffer for long periods before coming forward with their symptoms; others speak out about their condition but are denied treatment.
Army Sgt. Selena Coppa was recently diagnosed with military sexual trauma, a form of PTSD resulting from sexual harassment, assault or rape, years after her symptoms began.
"I think that the lack of initial treatment has severely impacted my life," Coppa, who served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany, told Truthout. "I was told by my therapist that my PTSD had gone from simple to complex as a result of the military environment and lack of real treatment. Military practitioners tend to be extremely unwilling to diagnose PTSD in active-duty soldiers, and thus make it more difficult for individuals to have access to treatment and care." Retention at All Costs Both Flowers and Coppa protested the military's neglect of their problems, but found little recourse for their grievances.
"I complained about what I felt was inadequate treatment, but was told there was simply no better treatment to offer me outside of the States, and they would not consider transferring me to the better treatment until I had already 'run the full course' with the less-effective treatment," Coppa said.
The military's reluctance to diagnose or treat PTSD is linked to its primary goal: retaining soldiers on the ground. Even if a soldier is only marginally able to perform, military authorities may make a strategic decision to delay diagnosis and treatment, which could lead to a discharge.
"For Flowers to be discharge-worthy, the military must feel it is better off without him," Huber said. "But there's a wrinkle. The military has to cultivate a culture of commitment. If it were easy to skip the enlistment contract and get out early, retention would plummet and America's ability to maintain the military status quo would vanish. That's why so many squeaky wheels don't get greased, and eventually crack and crumble.... I guess one could say brute retention is more important than mission readiness."
Soldiers diagnosed with psychological disorders may be reassigned to alternate duties, in place of receiving adequate treatment or a discharge. Flowers, for example, is now relegated to "meter maid" duty. He walks the Air Force base looking for parking violations, though he suffers from serious knee and back problems.
By the end of his daily nine-hour shift, he is in excruciating pain.
Coppa, who is now stationed in Germany, notes that her treatment - or lack thereof - was determined almost solely based on the "wishes of the command," not on her medical needs. Even after her diagnosis was recognized, she repeatedly met with resistance and indifference.
She also discovered that the military has startlingly few resources to deal with military sexual trauma.
"There are no domestic violence groups here in Germany, and no military sexual trauma groups," Coppa said. "They are ill-equipped to treat this form of PTSD in anything but a solo setting, which is not as helpful. Though they acknowledged I would benefit medically from a transfer to the States, one was refused."
Coppa's experience is widespread: support groups and alternative treatments are very rare. Typically, PTSD-diagnosed soldiers are prescribed medication at the outset, often with little explanation or accompanying talk therapy.
Drugs are seen as the quickest, most efficient route to retaining a soldier on duty, regardless of the consequences, according to Huber.
"The main strategy is to prescribe the problems away with pills, and as long as someone can remain upright under their own power and perform the base elements of their MOS [military occupation specialty], the military is adequately 'treating' the problem," Huber said. "If someone refuses to medicate, for fear of what they might do with live ammunition under the influence of three, four, five or more mind-altering drugs, they are simply written off as refusing the military's 'help' and not wanting to get better."
Recently, after a long fight, Steven Flowers was able to form a support group for PTSD sufferers in his unit. The group was created against the wishes of the military mental health staff, and Flowers's psychiatrist initially refused to consider the idea. Such groups are almost unheard of for soldiers on active duty.
For many service members with PTSD, the best they can hope for is the strength and luck to hold out until they return home.
"The help can be a little better after people get out and start seeing civilian psychologists, who care more about the individual then retaining a soldier who fills a slot in a unit," Capps-Schubert said.