Fighting For, and Living With, a Lie 

The physical and psychic toll on American vets must not be in vain.

The physical and psychological toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will long be felt by US soldiers and their families. After five years in Iraq, 4,000 American military men and women are dead and more than 29,000 are physically wounded. Shockingly, a recent study by the Rand Corporation found that 300,000 vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression and 320,000 most likely have suffered a brain injury. And of course things are much worse for the Iraqis themselves.

Unfortunately, those who claim most fervently that they support the troops are part of the machine that causes these physical and psychological injuries. Most veterans groups are simply shills for more war. Feted by governmental leaders, they have become willing allies in the production of more dead and injured veterans. They are unwilling to stand up and say, "Enough is enough." They make tepid pronouncements about the need for more veterans services but then are unable to stop budget cuts in assistance to veterans, like those periodically endured by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They are nowhere to be seen in the ongoing Walter Reed scandal. While there are veterans groups that take a contrary stand today, like the Veterans for Peace or the Iraqi Veterans against the War, they are ignored by the media and have yet to catch on in the community of veterans.

Yet slowly, but surely, the story of the mental and physical suffering of our vets is being exposed. A recent cover story in Time magazine revealed that "a sizable and growing number of US combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan." Especially gruesome details are beginning to emerge about the effects on women who have served. Women make up some 15 percent of US active-duty forces. The effect on female soldiers will prove to be the especially harmful, as a scandalous number were abused while in the military. According to Helen Benedict, author of the forthcoming book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, nearly one-third of female veterans say they were assaulted or raped while serving in Iraq. More than three-quarters of these vets say the men with whom they served sexually harassed them.

What are our military and civilian leaders, and their allies in veterans groups, doing about this? Precious little, it seems. Earlier this year, several reporters from the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for a story on the care that veterans receive at Walter Reed hospital. In doing their story, the reporters had to sneak in and out of the VA's hospital to avoid the military's PR flacks. Once perceived as the "crown jewel of military medicine," the hospital has become "something else entirely — a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients." Walter Reed is so ridiculously overcrowded that many injured soldiers have to be placed in "nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army." The Post reported that in the hospital, "disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs," so that, "the wounded manage other wounded and soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide."

More than 35 years ago I was drafted into the US Army. In the fortuitous luck of the draw I was assigned a skill no longer needed in Vietnam. Instead, one week before Christmas in 1972, I was sent to a tower overlooking the Iron Curtain to help ensure that the East Germans and Russians did not try to cross the border. I would have been dead if they had, but at least I could have warned those behind me.

Serving as an enlisted man in the military had a profound psychological effect on those with whom I served. A shocking number of my military friends and acquaintances became drug addicts, went to prison, or simply were unable to readjust to civilian life. Those who served and fought in Vietnam had a much greater burden to carry, to be sure. It is an extraordinary weight to see with your own eyes that you were not on the side of freedom and democracy and that your injuries and the injuries and deaths of your buddies were truly in vain. That kind of awareness is just too horrifying for many people and their families to admit. This psychological disconnect was the crucial part of the trauma that made it difficult for many of my fellow soldiers to fit back into society.

From the very beginning of the war in Iraq, today's soldiers have served in a war unpopular back home. Many veterans, along with their families, simply cannot come to grips with the fact they fought a war based on a lie. Add to that the guilt of knowing that you participated in the harm that war inflicted on the people of Iraq. When you pile on top of that the stress of repeated tours and physical injury, for many troops the result is post-traumatic stress disorder and worse.

The attempt by those in charge to hide the physical and mental carnage from the American people, while not unexpected, is outrageous. The arrogance of the government and complicity of the news media in refusing to show images of the caskets returning is a monumental sin. Think about what it would be to lose your son or daughter and know that their body is being brought back to the United States in secret.

The story of the physical and mental injuries of our veterans is being treated by our government in a similar way. It is sad enough that John McCain, who suffered himself in Vietnam, is willing to sacrifice veterans to one hundred years in Iraq. In order to toe the Republican party line, he refused to support legislation granting returning veterans extended education benefits. But where are those who claim to be the biggest supporters of veterans: the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars? They are too busy supporting the policies that get our troops killed, maimed, and neglected. Soon enough, we will learn the extent of the pain of our veterans and their families. Then these cheerleaders should be held to account.


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