By Annie Keeghan, January 13, 2012 1:11PM
I was getting ready to post another blog, one more lighthearted than the last that received so much attention and inspired some great dialogue (thank you!). But then I heard on the news that marines were videotaped urinating on the dead corpses of alleged Taliban insurgents and I felt compelled to write about that instead, to shed some light on another layer of war’s impact, a hidden layer embedded somewhere between all those battle lines.
When I saw that video, my first reaction wasn’t outrage or condemnation. It was worse than that; it was sadness. Outrage and condemnation would be more convenient, easier to feel and easier to justify, easier to forget by next week’s news cycle. Such emotions would provide me a higher moral ground, a sense of principle amidst the disgust; they’d also require little thought beyond the images and what they appear to portray. Certainly our leaders expressed their outrage and condemnation—Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, et al. But they know better, better than any of us, even if they won’t admit so publicly. Sadness, even concern for our troops? That’s a bit more complex, requires a lot more explanation and attention to what we’re doing to the young men and women that we send into combat. To feel sadness, we have to think about what the images do not so readily portray.
My second reaction to the news was wondering why we’re all so surprised, why we expect that these men and women, who must carry out duties they cannot decline—living in a state of constant hyper-vigilance, performing acts that none of us can imagine, suffering sleep deprivation and questioning their safety more hours of the day than not, watching their comrades blown to bits in front of them, watching innocent children and families suffering—why we expect that they won’t break, won’t seek out perverse forms of release, at least perverse in the context that we enjoy living in a world that is far safer than theirs, safer in large part due to the very same people that we have, for centuries, sent into combat.
It’s just all a bit more complicated than simple outrage.
I don’t believe the actions on the video are those typical of our military, but I do think they’re probably more prevalent than we realize, than we’d like to admit sitting in our living rooms without fear of IEDs or wondering if those who appear harmless are in fact dangerous and vice versa. We have no idea what these young men and women live out on a daily basis, many so young that they’ve experienced only a short span of adulthood, some with no life experience beyond high school. We see news clips, we read articles, we see videos, but that’s a two-dimensional world. These men and women live it out in 3D, 24/7.
A friend of mine, an acupuncturist, opened a clinic three years ago, open every Saturday to provide free treatment to veterans and active military to treat PTSD. Most know that PTSD is an emotional disorder that presents with a range of symptoms including, though not limited to, sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and emotional numbing. What many don’t know is that PTSD is rising at alarming rates among our combat troops still serving and those coming home, troops who have been asked to serve record tours of combat duty under hellish conditions.
I am the only the volunteer of the clinic who is not an acupuncturist. I write grants to try to secure funding to keep the clinic open. In doing so, I’ve had to do my research; in order to appeal for funding, I must justify the need for the clinic’s services. And the research has provided me an education both both heartbreaking and frightening. According to winoverptsd.com (a website run Charlene Rubush, a freelance writer and wife of a Vietnam veteran who suffered with PTSD, her inspiration for spending years researching the disorder):
- Lifetime prevalence of PTSD in combat veterans is 10-30%.
- In 2010, the number of diagnosed cases in the military jumped 50% (and that’s just diagnosed cases).
- Some studies estimate that 1 in every 5 military member returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffers with PTSD.
- 20% of the soldiers who have been deployed in the past six years have PTSD. That’s over 300,000.
Ilona Meagher, author of the book, Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops published in 2007, sets out to illustrate that PTSD is one of the most “catastrophic issues confronting our nation” and that “nearly 20 percent of the over half million troops that have left the military since 2003 have been diagnosed with PTSD.” And, again, that’s just the diagnosed cases, related in data that is now at least 4 years old.
It gets worse.
A Texas A & M University study (January 2011) concludes that there is more of a direct link between PTSD and suicide than previously thought. And, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study (January 2010), 18 veterans a day commit suicide, on average. The Veteran’s Administration reports that suicide rates among veterans ages 18 to 29 climbed 26% between 2005 and 2007, the most current statistics available. Additionally, veteran suicides account for about 20 percent of the nation’s 30,000 suicides each year.
Men and women receive mental health screening before they are allowed to enlist in the military. They must be physically and mentally fit to serve, after all. We don’t seem to be quite so concerned about their mental health once we place them into combat, however. A Time magazine article in 2006 reported that the military has been using anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to help soldiers cope in the battlefield (even though taking such medication is often a disqualifying factor for enlisting). These men and women aren’t returned to their family—their parents and siblings, their spouses and children—in the same condition as the military found them. Yet we expect different, we expect that their disciplined training prepared them for the fight, the stress, the trauma, the conflicts of conscience. But what could possibly prepare anyone for such trauma, the repeated and insidious form that unfolds in war?
Men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning to us with not only record numbers of physical wounds (most markedly the number of amputees), but an unprecedented number of invisible wounds, the mental and the emotional. At the clinic, this is seen firsthand every Saturday. But what really drives the point home, at least for me, is what is witnessed with the older clients, veterans of other wars who are still bearing the effects of PTSD and trauma decades later. After receiving several weekly treatments, the wife of a veteran who served during the Korean conflict reported that he’d slept through the night for the first time since returning to her from the battlefield. Try to imagine that for a moment, if you can. A night free of frightening dreams and flashbacks, a night free of waking up in a sweat, calling out the name of long-dead friend, a night of peace for the first time in over 50 years.
So again, I ask—why is it that we are all so surprised?