Honoring vets means nothing at all unless it means honoring the deeply gouged personal truths each experienced during deployment. But the dismissal of such truths is as much a part of war, and its aftermath, as the propaganda and geopolitical whoppers necessary to launch it.
The problem with these individual truths is that they seldom smack of glory. More often, they're simply mundane and hellish, and slowly eat the vet's soul. The clinical name for this is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it's the phrase I heard most frequently and most distinctly this past weekend, during the grim, pained acknowledgement -I can hardly call it celebration -of Veterans Day.
Ray Parrish, a vets' counselor and Vietnam vet, was adamantly pessimistic as he spoke to 100 or so people gathered on a bitter, gray Sunday morning at the river in downtown Chicago, about the psychic toll our current wars are exacting on the ones who are fighting them.
Noting that the standard tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan is 15 months (three months more than Nam), that two or three tours of duty are common, and that maybe eight or nine months of continuous battle conditions -little sleep, ever-present terror, the necessity to kill -is about all a normal human being can take, Parrish said: "It is inevitable that every soldier is coming back with PTSD -without exception."
Add to this the VA's rote denial of claims -"a lot of vets say the whole strategy of the VA is to keep delaying till they die," Parrish said -and the serious chance a GI suffering from PTSD will receive a dishonorable discharge for one reason or another (and have no eligibility for mental-health or any other kind of care), the psychological crisis we're in for as a nation is staggering.
Another veterans' advocate, Tod Ensign of the New York-based Citizen Soldier, said he expected a "tsunami" of mental-health problems among vets in the coming months -and a recent CBS news investigation indicates that the tsunami is already under way. In 2005, for instance, there were at least 6,256 suicides among vets (in 45 states that submitted data), a rate more than double the national average, CBS reported. The highest rate -no surprise -was among the twenty-somethings, who are freshly back from the war on terror.
Put this in the context of vets with serious physical injuries or illnesses (plus, no doubt, PTSD as well), so many of whom get minimal and grudging treatment or no treatment at all, and we find ourselves witnessing ... well, Baghdad in Middle America. This is what Bush, Cheney and the neocons have bequeathed us. No war truly ends, but the stain of a criminally unnecessary war has little to check its spread.
Treatment of PTSD? Uh, stop right there. "Treatment" is a bogus word, a joke, a sterile denaturing of the quagmire of horror and guilt that the sufferer lives with as a life companion. PTSD is not a "problem" to be "corrected" with, say, a drug. It is a terminal condition, an injection of hell into the veins and marrow and psyche. The word for dealing with it is "redemption," and it begins with telling the truth.
And there's the problem.
"Every vet feels the necessity to tell the truth to the American people, but is afraid to talk about it," Parrish said.
The military command structure -the immediate context of their lives -certainly has no use for it. It has a war to sell. A vet haunted by the memory of, say, accidentally killing an Iraqi civilian will not have much to contribute to this cause.
Consider, for instance, the deeply troubling story of the "Marlboro Marine," Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller. His face became an instant icon of the war on terror when, during a lull in the U.S. assault on Fallujah in November 2004, his photo was snapped by L.A. Times photographer Luis Sinco. Miller, leaning against a wall, savoring a cigarette, his face streaked with war paint and blood, had the look of a battle-weary American hero. Within 24 hours, the picture had run in more than 150 U.S. newspapers.
As an accidental celebrity, Miller, the grunt, was suddenly a beloved and valuable commodity up the chain of command. Shockingly, he was offered the chance to go home before his tour of duty ended because, according to Sinco's lengthy account in the L.A. Times this week, "nobody wanted to see him wounded or dead." Miller refused the offer.
Sinco's remarkable story details the reality behind the icon. In the ensuing three years, the Marlboro Marine's life has gone to hell: PTSD, blackouts, nightmares, alcoholism, emotional volatility (he was discharged from the Marines after he attacked a sailor whose whistling reminded him of a rocket-propelled grenade). His marriage fell apart, as did his career plans. He's in and out of rehab; his anguished memories are still inside him.
When we honor our vets, do we honor the cardboard glory or the nightmarish truth of their lives? And more importantly, when the usual suspects begin swaggering toward a new war, will we pause and consider the truth still festering from the last one?
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler at tribune dot com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
This article is interesting. My mentor was just speaking about this very thing to me a few weeks back. I personally know of people who came back from the Vietnam War all messed up!!! They really could not shut off the nightmates. There was very little help for PTSD back then, according to CNN, the Veterans are having a time getting help now. It is very scarey. Imagine people walking around in your neighborhoods that have been in Iraq, and keep reliving it over and over again.
As to the Jewish person who stated that Bush and Cheney were brave leaders. If they were so brave, then why aren't their daughters and sons over there fighting "their war!" As for terrorist, I guess I have to agree with T.D. Jakes, and Al Sharpton, we have terrorist in our own country. Just who are the real Terrorist anyway? Before you speak of someone elses country, you need to take a look at your own first. Turn on the news sometimes and see all the Americans that are being killed everyday in America. Wonder how much remorse those killers have.
Take care my brothers and sisters. This article is interesting.
The killing of unarmed personnel or civilians must be avoided at the first. Any such happening by mistake should be confessed ... and pardon sought of the Lord of all Living with purest of intention. It was a prone accident in the 'war zone', the station of killers. I was enlightened by a "brilliant muslim" that the fault of any casualties in the 'war zone' is the responsibility of those appearing before people taking their duty to kill.
"This is what Bush, Cheney and the neocons have bequeathed us" says the author. Perhaps the courageous leaders like Bush and Cheney serving their Nation and the just cause can not be blamed if they have not brought this about to create scenes for their personal pleasures like the brave Romans of the past who caused their victims (more just than themselves) to succumb fighting the savage beasts. In that sense, America has not deployed beasts to tear down the just opponents but civilized men who avoid killing even the terrorists and regret accidental incidences taking sickness upon their own soul.
Why do not the terrorists repent for the kindness shown them and submit under the just, humanitarian dominion? This would spell the end of war or occupation, whatsoever is called.