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 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 William Fisher, was published by IPS, February 17, 2009
NEW YORK, Feb 16 (IPS) - With growing public support for a public investigation of crimes that may have been committed by the administration of former president George W. Bush in waging its "global war on terror", policy makers and legal experts are deeply divided on how to proceed - and President Barack Obama seems ambivalent about whether to proceed at all.
The president has said his view is that "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
Before his nomination to be Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder appeared to take a stronger view.
He said, "Our government authorised the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution... We owe the American people a reckoning."
But at his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Holder tempered his responses to adhere more closely to Obama's position.
The president initially refrained from commenting on a proposal from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, for a "truth commission" to investigate abuses of detainees, politically inspired moves at the Justice Department, and a whole range of decisions made during the Bush administration. At the time, Obama said he had not seen the Leahy proposal, although he has not explicitly ruled it out.
Such a "truth commission" is one of several ideas being offered by those who see a comprehensive look-back as essential to cleansing the U.S. justice system and restoring the U.S.'s reputation in the world.
Leahy said the primary goal of the commission would be to learn the truth rather than prosecute former officials, but said the inquiry should reach far beyond misdeeds at the Justice Department under Bush to include matters of Iraq prewar intelligence and the Defence Department.
The panel he envisions would be modeled after one that investigated the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would have subpoena power but would not bring criminal charges, he said.
Among the matters Leahy wants investigated by such a commission are: the firings of U.S. attorneys, treatment and torture of terror suspect detainees, and the authorisation of warrantless wiretapping. He said that witnesses before such a commission might have to be granted limited immunity from prosecution to obtain their testimony.
Other Democrats have called for criminal investigations of those who authorised certain controversial tactics in the war on terror. Republicans have countered that such decisions made in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks should not be second-guessed.
An arguably stronger measure has been proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and nine other lawmakers. The measure would set up a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties, with subpoena power and a reported budget of around 3.0 million dollars.
It would investigate issues ranging from detainee treatment to waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. The panel's members would come from outside the government and be appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties.
This body would be much like the 9/11 Commission, set up after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, to examine failures within government anti-terror efforts. The commission's investigation did not lead to any prosecutions.
Human rights advocacy groups and many legal experts have been more forceful in their proposals.
For example, Amnesty International is urging its supporters to press lawmakers to investigate the U.S. government's abuses in the war on terror and hold accountable those responsible. The organisation is calling on Obama and Congress to create an independent and impartial commission to examine the use of torture, indefinite detention, secret renditions and other illegal U.S. counterterrorism policies.
But the organisation does not necessarily see a conflict between a 9/11-type body and a "truth and reconciliation" commission. In answer to a question from IPS, Amnesty International's Tom Parker said, "I don't think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Both could go forward at the same time. The immunities that may have to be granted by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not be absolute."
Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, does not favour the "truth and reconciliation" approach.
She told IPS, "As President Obama said, 'No one is above the law.' His attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials and lawyers who set the policy that led to the commission of war crimes. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are used for nascent democracies in transition. By giving immunity to those who testify before them, it would ensure that those responsible for torture, abuse and illegal spying will never be brought to justice."
A similar view was expressed by Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University. He told IPS, "The immunities that might be granted in connection with a congressional or commission investigation of the Bush administration could well compromise the prospects for criminal prosecution, as our experience with the Iran-Contra affair demonstrates. There is likewise reason to fear that justice cannot be completely served without recourse to prosecution."
"On the other hand," he said, "I believe our paramount need as a country is for a full and fair airing of the historical record; democracies depend, I think, on an unblinking understanding of their past."
"One would hope that immunity might be granted as narrowly as possible and that efforts would be undertaken to allow the Justice Department to preserve its investigative integrity based on independently developed evidence. Should push come to shove, however, I think history is more important than prosecution," he added.
Brian J. Foley, visiting associate professor at Boston University law school, takes a harder line. He told IPS, "Until we have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions rather than prosecutions for drug offenders and others accused of non-violent crimes whom we promiscuously throw into our overcrowded prisons, we should not bestow 'justice lite' on our political leaders. It appears that laws designed with government actors in mind were broken. There should be prosecutions."
And Georgetown University's David Cole, one of the country's preeminent constitutional lawyers, believes the Obama administration or Congress "should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States' adoption of coercive interrogation policies."
It should have "a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward", he said.
This divergence of viewpoints - from doing nothing to appointing a special prosecutor - is putting President Obama in an uncomfortable position. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that a sizable majority of citizens favours an investigation into Bush-era misconduct.
But Obama appears reluctant to take any action that might further divide the country. Moreover, he may be loath to antagonise Republicans, whose support he may need on many other issues in the future.
The Democratically-controlled Congress does not need the president in order to act - it can hold extensive hearings, grant itself subpoena power and in effect take whatever action it desires short of legislation, which would require the president's signature. But Congressional Democrats may well be reluctant to overtly defy the wishes of the president, who is the leader of their party.
So the form of the Bush-era retrospective - if there is to be one - is yet very much a work in progress that will continue to put pressure on the young Obama administration.
This article, the second part of Salon's series Coming Home by Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, was published February 10, 2009
Feb. 10, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- It was unseasonably warm for November in Colorado as Heidi Lieberman approached the door of the Soldiers' Memorial Chapel at Fort Carson. She walked past a few of the large evergreens that dot the chapel grounds and then entered the blockish, modern beige and brown chapel topped with a sharp, rocketlike steeple.
Inside, the chapel was hushed. Camouflage-clad, crew-cut young men packed the pews. Up in front, an empty Army helmet hung on the butt of an upright M16. A pair of brown combat boots sat below, as if they had been tucked under a bunk. A soldier handed Heidi a program for a memorial service. On the front was the image of a soldier, kneeling in prayer below an American flag and illuminated by a beacon of light from above. The inscription just below the kneeling soldier read, "Lord, grant me the strength ..."
It had been five days since Heidi's son Adam, 21, a soldier at Fort Carson, swallowed handfuls of prescription sleeping pills and psychotropic drugs in the barracks, trying to die. With a can of black paint, Adam brushed a suicide note on the wall of his room. The Army, Adam wrote, "took my life."
Adam had lived. Pfc. Timothy Ryan Alderman wasn't so lucky. Alderman had been found dead of a similar drug overdose in his room in the barracks at Fort Carson in the early-morning hours of Oct. 20, 10 days before Adam Lieberman made his suicide attempt.
Heidi, who was at Fort Carson to deal with the aftermath of her own son's suicide attempt, had decided to attend Alderman's funeral although neither she nor her son had known him. She sank into a pew and tried to reconcile two warring thoughts.
"On the one hand I was thinking, How dare the Army?" she told me later. "It is almost a slap in the face for the Army to present this lovely memorial service. It just seemed so hypocritical. Here was a kid who was screaming for help. He killed himself and they are making nice-nice?"
"On the other hand," she recalled thinking as she scanned the pews for family of the dead soldier, "I was thinking, God, this could have been me."
Both men were 21. Both served long combat tours in Iraq. Both overdosed on drugs. Both had sought help from the Army, and the Army had failed them. Sadly, however, their stories are far from unique.
Late last month, the Army announced data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. And suicide is only one manifestation of the mental health ills coming home with U.S. troops. Four years after Salon first exposed problems with healthcare at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately became a national scandal, the situation, at least at some Army posts, has only deteriorated. For the "Coming Home" series, in which today's two entries are the second installment, Salon put together a sample of 25 cases of suicide, prescription drug overdoses or murder involving Fort Carson soldiers since 2004. A close study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of avoidable deaths, meaning that a suicide or murder might well have been prevented had the Army better handled the predictable and well-known symptoms of combat stress. (Read the introduction to the "Coming Home" series here.) As Alderman's death shows, part of the problem is an apparent tendency of Army doctors to substitute large doses of prescription medication for adequate mental healthcare.
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Timothy Ryan Alderman grew up in Mulberry, a central Florida town of just 3,200 people, a speck on the map 30 miles inland from Tampa. Though Florida is often thought of as a state full of transplants, Alderman, who went by his middle name, Ryan, had roots in Mulberry. His father had also been raised there, and some of Ryan’s teachers had been his father’s schoolmates. Growing up, Ryan was an avid outdoorsman, hunting rabbit and squirrel and catching bass and bluegill. He was also a passionate skateboarder and surfer. Skateboarding became snowboarding when Ryan joined the Army just after his 18th birthday in 2005 and was stationed at Fort Carson.
Ryan served over a year in Iraq as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, part of the 2nd Infantry Division. His tour, including service in Ramadi, site of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq, began in October 2006. Soldiers at Fort Carson say he served on 250 missions and had 16 confirmed kills, though it is difficult to independently verify those figures.
It was by all accounts an active and bloody combat tour. His medical records show that when he was in Iraq he did not think he would suffer combat stress afterward, because he "mostly had fun killing people and getting paid for it." If that sounds monstrous, it is actually not unusual for war veterans to describe combat as simultaneously horrifying and thrilling.
Ryan did receive at least three battalion commander "coins for excellence." Some units hand out the engraved, bronze-colored coins as on-the-spot awards for good performance or valor. Correspondence from Ryan's battalion to his family shows that Ryan received one, for example, for extracting another wounded soldier under fire during an ambush.
While Ryan's medical records show he reported no serious mental problems before Iraq, things unwound upon his return in late 2007 and got worse as time passed. In June 2008 Ryan showed up at Fort Carson's hospital and filled out a "behavioral health questionnaire." He reported being "extremely bothered" by disturbing memories, nightmares, panic attacks, trying not to think about the war, emotional numbness, irritation, angry outbursts and jumpiness, among other symptoms.
He reported on the form that his problems began in February 2008, soon after his return from Iraq. On a scale of 1 to 10, Ryan ranked the severity of his situation as an 8. When the form asked, "What are you seeking from this service?" Ryan filled in, simply, "help."
Soldiers face considerable stigma for seeking mental healthcare in some Army units. Old habits die hard, according to the Fort Carson commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, a man with a reputation for working to fix these problems at his post. "We are trying to say that it is a sign of strength and not weakness to come forward and get help."
"What I tell the [officers and non-coms in combat units] is, 'You are not medical professionals. You are not the people that can treat and diagnose this.' So, [their job] is to be caring and compassionate for our soldiers and make sure they get the medical care they need."
"I do think we are making some progress," said Graham, describing the erasure of the stigma for seeking mental healthcare as a top priority. "It is certainly not fast enough for any of us ... It takes time and it takes consistency from the entire Army."
"Any death is regrettable," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist, in an interview. "And certainly suicide -- which is something I've been looking into very closely -- is extremely tragic for all concerned and we always go back and say, 'How could this have been prevented? What could we have done better?'" Ritchie reels off a laundry list of initiatives for improving Army mental healthcare, like the establishment of a 24-7 hotline for soldiers to help arrange counseling and a new policy, started in the spring of 2008, to ensure that seeking mental healthcare won't mess up a soldier's security clearance. The Army's most recent study of mental health issues in Iraq and Afghanistan showed improvements on decreasing stigma. "The trend is the direction we'd like it to go in," said Ritchie.
At least one of Alderman's superiors apparently didn't get the message. There is a saying that the most powerful man in the Army is a sergeant. That's because when a low-ranking soldier needs just about anything, he has to go to his first sergeant. A former roommate of Alderman's who fought beside him in Iraq took Alderman to his first sergeant to get him mental healthcare. "I escorted Ryan to the first sergeant's office," Alderman's buddy told Salon. According to the friend, the first sergeant "blew [Alderman] off" and said, "Everybody sees what you saw" in Iraq. At one point, alleged the friend, another sergeant told Alderman, "I wish you would just go ahead and kill yourself. It would save us a lot of paperwork."
"The Army treated Ryan as if he was the problem," said the friend, "not that he had a problem."
Alderman's medical records show that in June 2008 he had "homicidal ideation" toward his first sergeant. By August, he was "feeling suicidal." Alderman was hospitalized in June, in August and then finally in October because of his symptoms. Records show doctors saw crosshatch lacerations on his arms. The cuts, Alderman would later reveal, were from self-mutilation.
The records show doctors, however, "ruled out" PTSD as the cause of Alderman's problems, and did so without any recorded explanation. As in Adam Lieberman's case, doctors determined that Alderman's problems were his own, and were not related to his Army service. At various times, doctors instead blamed anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, alcohol abuse, depression "NOS" (not otherwise specified) and anxiety "NOS" -- anything but the war.
Records show that during the summer of 2008, Alderman admitted to doctors that he sought out medication to "numb my feelings." The Army put Alderman in the same substance abuse program as Adam Lieberman, the one Lieberman would later call a "joke."
Alderman's father, Tim, also noticed the change in his son after Iraq, just as Heidi Lieberman noticed a change in Adam. Tim thought Ryan might suffer from PTSD.
Ironically, the Army had educated Tim on PTSD. While his son was in Iraq, the Army had sent Tim "Down Range: To Iraq and Back," by Bridget C. Cantrell and Chuck Dean, a book about PTSD. Tim thought his son's symptoms upon his return made him a prime candidate. He didn't understand why the Army couldn't see the same thing. "I read the book and I knew what to look for," Tim said in a telephone call from his home in Florida. "But he wasn't in my house, he was in their house," he said, referring to the Army.
Tim visited his son in the first week of October during Ryan's last hospitalization. Tim said the visit left him worried that the Army cared little for damaged soldiers. They got pills while being processed out of the military, but not much more. "It looked like a slaughterhouse operation to me," he told me. "Get 'em in. Get 'em out. Get 'em to Iraq."
Ryan's medical records from that period describe his father as "genuine and supportive and tearful at times." Tim also expressed some alarm: His son seemed dangerously stoned on his meds. "Dad noted that Ryan seemed 'out of it' and 'over-medicated,'" according to the records.
Just prior to his death, Ryan Alderman planned to do something about his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Army. He joined a small group of soldiers who wrote and signed sworn statements explaining their predicaments. The plan was to seek some sort of legal help. Salon obtained Alderman's statement from the family of another Fort Carson soldier.
He describes "traumatic events" in Iraq, including the death of friends from roadside bombs and a friendly-fire incident in which U.S. Marines fired on his post. "Upon returning from Iraq, seeking help was discouraged," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement. "So I self medicated and started cutting myself to relief (sic) the pain." (Self-mutilation is a relatively common phenomenon among people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It literally cuts through the emotional numbness, allowing the PTSD sufferer to feel something.)
"I still have nightmares about the war and Staff Sgt. Hager," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement, referring to the bloody death of Staff Sgt. Joshua Hager by roadside bomb on Feb. 23, 2007, in Ramadi. Friends say Alderman pulled Hager's dismembered corpse from the wreckage of a vehicle. "I am seeking help but I feel like I'm not being treated right. I mean mental help. I struggle every day with it."
Alderman dated the sworn statement Oct. 13, 2008. He died seven days later.
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While the Army claims Alderman committed suicide, evidence suggests he might just as well have accidentally overdosed on a massive concoction of prescription drugs the Army gave him, plus a couple of his own.
Possible overmedication is a theme running throughout Alderman's hospitalization and care at the hands of the Army. On Oct. 6, one caregiver wrote in his records that Alderman "appears to be heavily medicated," could not complete sentences and was dozing off. A note on Oct. 8 says Alderman was "very dependent on his medications." On Oct. 11, one caregiver on the evening shift described him as being in a "stupor."
By mid-October, the records describe Alderman as "very much drug seeking." Doctors replaced his Valium and Percocet with alternatives. Alderman responded by demanding to be released from the hospital.
On discharge, records show, doctors had Alderman on 0.5 mg of Klonopin for anxiety three times a day; 800 mg of Neurotin, an anti-seizure medication, three times a day; 100 mg of Ultram, a narcotic-like pain reliever, three times a day; 20 mg of Geodon for bipolar disorder at noon and then another 80 mg at night; 0.1 mg of Clonodine, a blood pressure medication also used for withdrawal symptoms, three times a day; 60 mg of Remeron, for depression, once a day; and 10 mg of Prozac twice a day.
Salon contacted an Army psychiatrist who requested anonymity and read him that list of drugs and the dosage amounts. "Oh God," he said. "That's shitty. That breaks all the rules. He was overmedicated. That's bad medicine."
An Army psychologist at Fort Carson examined Alderman on the day of his discharge from the hospital. She described him as "overly sedated and slurring his words." (The Army psychiatrist Salon called said, "Of course he was.") Despite his heavy prescription load, Alderman still wanted pain pills. The Fort Carson psychologist described Alderman as depressed, anxious and sad, but not contemplating suicide or murder. The psychologist sent Alderman on his way to the barracks. It is the last entry. Alderman was found dead five days later.
Col. Kelly A. Wolgast, the commander of Evans U.S. Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, declined comment on any specific cases, citing privacy law. "I feel for families who have lost a soldier, no matter how it happened," she said in an interview at her office. "We grieve with them. We will completely pledge to those families that we are doing everything that we possibly can to see that never happens to another soldier. Their sacrifice, we believe, is not in vain."
Alderman's autopsy report blames "multiple drug intoxication" for his death. The cause: suicide. In addition to his meds, Alderman took some Xanax and morphine, adding to the toxic combination, but there is little evidence he meant to die. Tim Alderman thinks his son's body succumbed to the onslaught of drugs, more Heath Ledger than Kurt Cobain. In this case, the cocktail included some drugs supplied by the Army, some abused by Ryan. "His body just shut down," claimed Tim. "It was overloaded."
Ryan's former roommate and battle buddy blames the Army for Ryan's death. "I know he didn't commit suicide," he told me. "I don't think he should have been released from the hospital. I know for a fact the Army killed my friend," he added. "I want something done. The Army is killing people left and right and nobody cares."
The Army ruled Ryan's death a suicide, in part, because he had pinned a letter to his wall addressed to his mother who died of an illness years earlier. Tim shared the note with Salon, along with hundreds of pages of medical records.
The affectionate letter doesn't read much like a suicide note. Ryan pledges that, "You will always be in my heart and soul." Tim said Ryan told him about that letter some time ago. Ryan's medical records show he was writing similar letters to sort out his feelings.
Ryan's intentions in the early hours of Oct. 20, however, seem beside the point. A clear-eyed assessment of his war-related problems might have saved him.
The stakes are always high whenever a parent loses a child. They were especially high for Ryan's father, Tim. Tim's wife died in 2004 from illness. His eldest son, Ryan's older brother, died in 2006 in a car crash. Now Ryan, his last surviving child, is gone. "It was the end of [the] family tree," Tim said about his younger son's death. "Everything I started is gone."
These book reviews, by Gerald Nicosia, were published in The San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2009
The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans, By Aaron Glantz, University of California Press; 254 pages; $24.95
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations, By Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, Haymarket Books; 236 pages; $16 paperback
Get ready, America: The Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are starting to make their voices heard. Just as it took decades for us to learn the full extent of the damage wrought by the Vietnam War, we are just now starting to glimpse the hurt and suffering and enduring wounds created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With "The War Comes Home" and "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," independent journalist Aaron Glantz puts himself at the forefront of those who are bringing this new generation of veterans into public view. Not only did Glantz spend several years in Iraq, covering the war and reporting on the lives of Iraqis, but he was deeply affected by the conflict to the point of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned.
What makes "The War Comes Home" such a powerful plea is that Glantz admits his initial bias against the vets - they were the ones who caused all the misery among the poor Afghans and Iraqis. But his eventual realization that both reporter and soldier are common victims of a government that wages such wars allowed him to identify with the vets and to empathize with their struggles.
Like the Vietnam vets, these vets return to face their own people who wish to put these unproductive wars behind them. One of the most poignant observations comes from Shad Meshad, a Vietnam veteran who spent decades counseling troubled vets. Meshad tells Glantz: "When I go through airports I see soldiers just sitting up against a wall - you may see hundreds of them in a large airport - just by themselves. No one goes up to them, that positive energy toward them is faded ... No one is spitting or shouting, but they're still left with the fact that they're responsible for what they did or didn't do and they're supposed to think about that alone."
Depression, suicide, homelessness, jail, PTSD - the statistics for the veterans are as staggering as they were for Vietnam vets. A 2008 Rand Corporation study claims that "at least 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, while another 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury." It also claims that "a majority of the injured are not receiving help from the Pentagon and VA."
The scandal over the horrible conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was the most dramatic manifestation of what is daily reality for most vets seeking treatment: A VA backlog of tens of thousands of claims, interminable waits to see a doctor and general bureaucratic apathy. In one of the more wrenching stories, Glantz relates how the parents of Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey watched helplessly as his mental health deteriorated after his return from Iraq - while the VA refused to treat him for PTSD because of his chronic drunkenness - until one day Lucey's father found him hanging dead from a garden hose tied to a beam in their cellar.
The vets are victims not of some sinister plot, but of a government forced to cut back VA staffing and programs to pay for the very war that is disabling so many of them. Glantz shows that the problem stems ultimately from the way our society uses, then discards, its warriors.
"Nobody really knows how to deprogram a soldier," Glantz quotes former Army instructor Karl Risinger. Even more to the point are the words of a veteran who spent 15 years homeless and in prison: "I needed to learn how to live again." The military, as Glantz points out, teaches well how to kill and how to survive in the most adverse and threatening circumstances, but not at all how to get a job, keep a family together, or live "life on life's terms."
The reader will get a concentrated, almost unbearable dose of soldiers' pain in "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," a book that Glantz put together with the help of the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. The book comprises selections of the testimony given by about 50 veterans at a four-day event staged by IVAW in Silver Spring, Md., in March. IVAW modeled its hearings on the Winter Soldier Investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, whose goal had been to show that atrocities such as the My Lai massacre had not been freak occurrences perpetrated by a "few bad apples," but the product of official military policy. Similarly, IVAW wanted to show that "high-profile atrocities like the torture of prisoners inside Abu Ghraib and the massacre of twenty-four innocent civilians at Haditha were ... part of a pattern of increasingly bloody occupations."
The vets' words in "Winter Soldier" are at times so shocking that many Americans will not want to believe them. In fact, the public got no chance to assess the truthfulness of the testimony because most of the national media refused to cover the hearings. But all of the vets who testified were checked out ahead of time. Moreover, the terse, understated way that many of the vets related unthinkable horrors testified to the banality of these experiences.
Not all of the stories related in "Winter Soldier" are gruesome, and it may be hard sometimes to tell whether the shelling of a mosque, say, or the tearing apart of an old woman's house in the middle of the night were "atrocities" or simple military necessity. But in a way that is what the "Winter Soldier" hearings set out to show: that in this endless so-called war on terror, the "rules of engagement" eventually loosened to the point where American soldiers were told they could use lethal force against any Iraqi showing "hostile intent."
Like "The War Comes Home," "Winter Soldier" makes us feel the pain and despair endured by those who serve in a military stretched to the breaking point by stop-loss policies, multiple combat tours, and a war where the goals and the enemies keep shifting. But these books also make us admire the unbreakable idealism and hope of those men and women who still believe that by speaking out they can make things better both for themselves and for those who come after them.
"We were all good people," said Army scout Steven Casey. "We were just in a bad situation and we did what we had to do to get through."