Moral Low Ground


Every Day a Veterans Day

A homeless veteran in San Francisco. (Photo/Vera Yu and David Li via Flickr)

A homeless veteran in San Francisco. (Photo/Vera Yu and David Li via Flickr)

We Americans are very good at demonstrating how much we support our troops. We buy bumper stickers, ribbons, t-shirts and the like. We pay solemn, momentary homage to our men and women in uniform at sporting events and on days like today. Then we forget all about them.

It’s not all our fault; our (mis)leaders would rather we not dwell too much upon the unpleasanstries of the current conflict, which is now in its tenth year with no end in sight. Nearly 7,000 American and allied troops have died in the War on Terror and another 40,000 have been wounded. All told, over 1.5 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way many of these veterans have been treated by the military and their government  over the course of the last decade deserves a closer look.

Conditions at Veterans Affairs hospitals have improved significantly since the early days of the War on Terror when patients languished in moldy, rotting, rat and roach-infested barracks. Things were so bad back then that comatose patients at one VA hospital had maggot infestations in their noses. Improper sterilization of medical equipment at three southern VA facilities exposed up to 10,000 veterans to potentially deadly diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Dozens were infected.

Today, military and VA personnel are overwhelmed by the sheer number of wounded warriors entrusted to their care. In addition to the tens of thousands of amputations, burns, bullet and shrapnel wounds, more than 300,000 servicemen and women have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries. Up to 30% of combat veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The harrowing horrors of close-quarter urban guerrilla warfare brought fresh-faced kid-next-door Americans face-to-face with gruesome, deadly violence. A Mother Jones survey found that 94% of U.S. soldiers in Iraq report being shot at; 86% know someone who was seriously injured or killed. More than two-thirds have seen dead or seriously injured Americans with their own eyes. Nearly half have killed Iraqi combatants; often they’ve participated in atrocities. Fully 28% of U.S. soldiers admit they’ve killed non-combatants. No wonder the VA is swamped with PTSD cases.

Army Specialist Ethan McCord witnessed an Apache helicopter assault on a group of Iraqis that killed twelve people and wounded two children, an attack made infamous when video footage of it was released on the whistleblower website Wikileaks earlier this year. Specialist McCord rescued the two little children; a crying girl shot in the stomach with glass in her eye and her badly wounded brother. Later, after trying to wash the childrens’ blood off of himself, McCord approached a sergeant and asked for mental health counseling to help him cope with what he’d just been a part of. McCord told Wired how the sergeant told him he “needed to get the sand out of his vagina” and that he was a “pussy” and would face repercussions if he sought help.

Undaunted, Specialist McCord returned home to Ft. Riley, Kansas but found an overwhelmed mental health system with a minimum six week wait to see a counselor. He began “self-medicating” with alcohol. Then, like 12,000 veterans do every year, he tried to kill himself. He was treated in a civilian hospital where he was prescribed 13 different medications, including heavy-duty anti-psychotics. His marriage fell apart and he was discharged from the Army, which called his PTSD a pre-existing condition. That means McCord is ineligible for VA disability benefits.

According to ABC News and The Nation, more than 22,000 veterans have been discharged because of so-called “personality disorders” over the course of the War on Terror. The problem is, personality disorders are severe afflictions that develop during childhood; military recruits who suffer from them are universally rejected. But the Army has found a way to save billions of dollars by deceptively discharging soldiers who suffer from PTSD and other mental ailments via non-existent personality disorders. These troops lose their lifetime disability benefits and long-term medical care. They also often have to pay back some of their enlistment bonuses.

Despite passing eight psychological screenings, former sergeant Chuck Luther was booted from the Army after a mortar attack left him physically and mentally shattered. He was given a personality disorder discharge, but not before he was declared a suicide risk and locked up in an isolation chamber where he was subjected to some of the same tortures usually reserved for terrorism suspects. His commander later forced him to sign papers stating his medical problems resulted from a personality disorder; if he refused he was told he would remain locked up in solitary confinement.

Don’t believe the Army would treat its veterans like this? Proof emerged in June 2008 when a sergeant suffering from PTSD snuck a hidden voice recorder to an appointment with a psychologist at Ft. Carson, Colorado. The sergeant asked the counselor why he’d been diagnosed with “anxiety disorder” rather than PTSD. reported the psychologist’s response: “I will tell you something confidentially that I would have to deny if it were ever made public: Not only myself, but all the clinicians here are being pressured not to diagnose PTSD and diagnose anxiety disorder instead. Unfortunately, yours has not been the only case… I think it’s a horrible way to treat soldiers.”

Lately, there’s been a concerted, top-down effort in the military to encourage soldiers suffering from PTSD and other brain injuries to seek the help they so desperately need. But the macho military culture still very much discourages this. According to McClatchy Newspapers, fully 60% of U.S. troops believe their careers would suffer if they sought mental health help, despite the fact that brain injuries are among the most common wounds suffered by veterans of the War on Terror.

It should come as no surprise, then, that 12,000 veterans attempt suicide every year. The VA lied about this number, claiming it was “only” about 800, but internal e-mails revealed the truth. In 2009, some 2,000 active duty and reserve troops attempted suicide. Of these, 239 succeeded. At Ft. Hood in Texas, fourteen soldiers killed themselves in the first nine months of 2010; four of them in just one weekend. Alive in body but dead in spirit, all too many of our wounded warriors have lost the will to live.

Sometimes it’s not just themselves they hurt.

Army Sergeant John Russell, who suffered from mental problems, opened fire in a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, killing five fellow soldiers in May 2009. Nicholas Horner, another Army sergeant and decorated three-tour Iraq combat veteran suffering from PTSD, killed two people and wounded a third on a Pennsylvania shooting spree in April 2009.

Soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division’s 4th brigade based at Fort Carson, Colorado have had a particularly difficult time re-adjusting to life in America. The unit endured a hellish year in Iraq’s bloody Sunni Triangle in which 64 soldiers were killed and over 400 were wounded. The survivors witnessed and participated in horrific violence. Some killed innocent civilians. Their experiences left them terribly scarred. Brigade veterans returning stateside have been involved in a disproportionately high number of crimes, including drug deals, domestic violence, assaults, DUIs. kidnappings, stabbings, rapes and murders. Ten soldiers from the unit have been accused of murder since 2005.

“The Army pounds it into your head until it’s instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody,” former infantry Specialist Kenneth Eastridge, who is serving a ten-year sentence for accessory to murder for the shooting death of a fellow soldier, explained, “and you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off.” To make matters worse, many soldiers from the unit who sought help for their PTSD and other mental problems were ignored, ridiculed, berated or even punished.

Especially alarming is the skyrocketing rate of domestic violence and murder. In February 2010 Army sergeant and Iraq war veteran Joshua Tabor was arrested in Washington state after he tortured his four-year-old daughter by waterboarding her when she wouldn’t recite her ABC’s. William Edwards and his wife Erin were both Army sergeants who served in Iraq. One day William brutally assaulted Erin and when she arranged for a transfer to a far-away base he shot her in the head at point-blank range before turning the gun on himself.

Sometimes the military even deployed men who had been convicted of violent domestic crimes, with tragic and deadly results. Marine Corps Sergeant Jared Terrasas punched his wife in the face but was shipped off to Iraq before facing justice for the assault. He returned after his tour of duty, pleaded guilty and enrolled in a treatment program for batterers. But the Marine Corps saw fit to pull him from the program and send him back to Iraq for a second tour. This time he came home and murdered his seven-month-old son.

Jose Aguilar, another Marine sergeant who served two tours of duty in Iraq, also killed his young son. The two-month-old child ended up in the hospital with brain and eye hemorrhages after Aguilar returned from his first tour. Incredibly, Sergeant Aguilar was then re-deployed to Iraq despite the felony child abuse charge pending against him. A year after he returned from his second tour his son, now two years old, was murdered by his own father.

Sergeant Jon Trevino, an Air Force medic, endured multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Trevino, who suffered from childhood sexual abuse, PTSD and other psychological ailments, shot both his wife and himself to death in front of their nine-year-old son.

These are but a few of the more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence involving War on Terror veterans. In one six-week period in 2002 alone, four soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina murdered their wives.

Despite the incredible and often deadly physical and psychological stress suffered by veterans of America’s War on Terror, the Pentagon continued to push the limits of human endurance as the conflict escalated through the 2000s. The Army shortened turnaround times for multiple combat brigades, sending war-weary troops back into battle before their promised rest periods were over. At the same time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates extended Army combat tours twice since the invasion of Iraq; from six months to a year, and then to fifteen months.

Gates also accelerated the Army’s “stop-loss” policy, by which tens of thousands of soldiers had their service time involuntarily extended in a desperate effort to boost the number of U.S. combat troops. Secretary Gates later acknowledged that holding soldiers “against their will is just not the right thing to do” and moved to end stop-loss, but the damage has already been done. Multiple combat deployments and longer tours of duty have been proven to result in dramatically higher rates of PTSD and major depression and many combat veterans who commit suicide or violent crimes have been victims of intentional Pentagon policies.

Meanwhile, the VA has shamefully employed “gaming strategies” designed to improve bureaucratic scoring while denying wounded veterans medical care because they failed to comply with a technicality requiring them to show up fifteen minutes prior to their appointment. The military is also saving money on disabled veterans by making one-time payments for their injuries. That may sound acceptable, but by taking the money the veteran forfeits their right to retirement pay, family health care and other military benefits.

Sergeant Joe Baumann, a 22-year-old California National Guardsman, was shot by a sniper in Baghdad in April 2005. He now walks with a cane, is plagued by back problems and suffers from PTSD. He can’t sleep at night nor can he hold down a job. He was offered $8,000 for his troubles. “The Army acts like they just want you to get out the door as fast as possible at the lowest possible cost without taking into account how you are going to live for the rest of your life,” Baumann told the Los Angeles Times.

It’s all about priorities, and despite all the lofty rhetoric about “supporting our troops” the harsh reality is that we Americans are really good at throwing parades and welcoming home our war veterans and remembering them on designated patriotic holidays but once the martial music and the fireworks are over we tend to forget about them until they snap and make the news.

Not only does our government fail our veterans by sins of neglect, some of our leaders actually actively opposed legislation expanding veterans’ benefits. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, himself a decorated veteran and prisoner of war, joined 22 other Senate Republicans in opposing the 2008 veterans’ bill, claiming it was too expensive.

Too expensive? The United States has already spent over $1,100,000,000,000 fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 and McCain has no problem with that. The cost of the veterans’ bill is an estimated $45 billion over ten years, a little more than 4% of this staggering sum. Senator McCain’s opposition to spending government funds to care for and educate the men and women who fight to advance the government’s agenda is indeed curious, especially when you consider it was public money that financed his education at the United States Naval Academy.

Returning war veterans also often face discrimination in the civilian work world. They have a harder time finding jobs and usually earn less pay than other workers. And despite a federal law requiring employers to rehire workers returning from active military duty and prohibiting discrimination against those who deploy, tens of thousands of returning vets were either denied prompt re-employment or lost perviously held positions. As of mid-2010 the Washington Post reported that the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans stood at 14.7%; for vets ages 18-24 it was an alarming 21.1%.

In what is truly one of the great outrages of our day, over 1,500 War on Terror veterans are homeless. Unemployment, high housing costs and PTSD are to blame, and the number of homeless vets is expected to grow exponentially in coming years, as it did following the Vietnam War. There are 200,000 homeless veterans living in the United States today, according to CBS News. You would think that we would have found a way to deal with this crisis after Vietnam. Now it looks like we’ll get another shot at it.

Is this how we “support our troops?” Is this how we take care of our veterans who, regardless of what your personal opinion on the war may be, give so much of themselves? Unless we make a concerted national effort to truly look after our veterans in the manner they deserve (and a good start would be demanding an end to imperial wars), all the parades and accolades we heap upon them today are little more than an exercise in martial masturbation.

Every day should be Veterans Day.

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One Comment

  1. Tyler HayesNovember 11, 2010 at 5:43 amReply

    Time will not heal those wounds. If we are not willing to help service members recover in both mind and body, and support their reintegration into society after serving, then we shouldn’t send them in the first place. What happened to honor?

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