Counting Fuses with the Boomerang Ghosts of War

At around 3 a.m. this past Sunday morning, a 38 year old soldier who had served in the army for 11 years, including three terms in Iraq, walked out of his base and into the two villages of Najib Yan and Alokozai, proceeding to murder 16 people, including 9 women and three children. He would burn some of the bodies and then return to base, calmly turning himself in. The soldier, it is said, suffered from the psychological scarring of war and was having a hard time adjusting to the world around him.

On top of the military’s recent drone killings of civilians and Koran burning, this latest incident will surely make a terrible situation even worse. The other loaf in our Iran Sandwich, Afghanistan has become the vortex of interminable corruption and war that was feared a decade ago.

Interestingly, in one of those telling footnotes of history, tensions have risen to the level that on US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent trip to Afghanistan, some 200  Marines were asked to disarm before he would begin his speech.

“All I know is I was told to get the weapons out,” Sergeant Major Brandon Hall told The New York Times. Asked why, he replied, “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust.” …
“…the Marines who were waiting were abruptly told by their commander to get up, leave weapons, including M16 and M-4 automatic rifles and 9 mm pistols and return unarmed.Hall said he was acting on orders from superiors, the Times reported.”

Conditions in Afghanistan have Vietnamized to the point where a decade into our military-corporate occupation our very soldiers are being pushed by a variety of conditions into psychological crisis. The very construct of the war machine is in itself enough to legitimately push any participant into breakdown, whether a victim or a victimizer. And while there are indeed many sides to the Afghanistan horror story, most sides seem to have a bit of both categories.

We should already know by now what’s to come for our own side’s victims and victimizers. This is no new story. By the time the 80’s rolled around, 30% of male Vietnam War veterans and 27% of female Vietnam War veterans reported experiencing PTSD. More than 150,00 Vietnam war soldiers have died by suicide, more than died from combat in that war.

The pattern continues. In 2010, for example, more Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans died from suicide than from battle wounds.  That same year, Veterans Affairs was busted for hiding the massive breadth of the soldier suicide problem, registering some 12,000 attempted soldier suicides a year. In 2009, CBS reported 6,200 veteran suicides for 2005 alone. In 2008, we were seeing a 500% spike in soldier suicides within 5 years, the same year the Rand Corporation predicted about 1 in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would suffer from PTSD, in the long-term, just an early indicator, but one that the National Institute of Mental Health agrees with.. Whether it rises to Vietnam era 30% remains to be seen.

But for a second let’s imagine that Iraq and Afghanistan PTSD rates eventually mirror those of the vietnam era, and that out of the 2.2 million soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan about 30% will suffer from this debilitating condition. That would amount to 660,000 soldiers who will be suffering from PTSD in our lifetime. To put it in proportion, that’s more than twice the population of Albany, New York, the state’s capital, including it’s suburbs,

For too long the pathetic response from the VA has been either denial, such as in the above-mentioned case of burying the actual rate of veteran suicide, or banking on heavy pharmaceuticals. Some disturbing trends include:

• Antipsychotic medications, including Seroquel and Risperdal, spiked most dramatically — orders jumped by more than 200 percent, and annual spending more than quadrupled, from $4 million to $16 million.
• Use of anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives such as Valium and Ambien also rose substantially; orders increased 170 percent, while spending nearly tripled, from $6 million to about $17 million.
• Antidepressants had a comparatively modest 40 percent gain in orders, but it was the only drug group to show an overall decrease in spending, from $49 million in 2001 to $41 million in 2009, a drop of 16 percent. The debut in recent years of cheaper generic versions of these drugs is likely responsible for driving down cost

As compared to an already medicated general American population, where about 10% of Americans take psych meds, active duty soldiers have an on-the-record (and on-the-record isn’t the only way to get psych meds on base) usage rate of 17%, with about 1 in 6 soldiers using psychiatric drugs. Exacerbating the problem further is the fact that veterans with PTSD are considerably more likely to be prescribed addictive pain medication. Even soldiers’ kids are now being pumped full of medication.

Currently, the VA’s Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) receives about 10,000 calls per month, an indicator that the psychological trauma faced by many of this country’s soldiers will continue haunting them, as well as us.

There’s a wave of psychologically troubled veterans headed back to America, and we need to prepare more thoroughly. While some may say the Kandahar Massacre is just (another) isolated incident involving one troubled soldier, chances are as someone who has been deployed four times, the soldier joins the most PTSD-endangered group of veterans, those who have served multiple tours of duty. It’s more than likely whatever the Kandahar killer’s psychological problems, they could only have been heavily exacerbated by his multiple deployments.

In the long run, there are of course hundreds of workable solution to decades of soldier suicides. Out of all these, only one can truly promise a sustainable decline in these terrible deaths: peace. Until we take the reins of power from the corporate kleptomaniacs that have usurped our government, these wars will remain as bloody, hidden and frequent as ever. Until such a power-shift is thoroughly achieved, we would do well to watch and alleviate the coming tsunami of troubled soldiers, their ghosts and more fuses than anyone can count.

Image: Military Ministry

8 Replies to “Counting Fuses with the Boomerang Ghosts of War”

  1. Meanwhile, the same people promoting these endless wars propose, as they have always done, that working women should free up jobs for these veterans by getting married and going home to the kitchen. Marry whom, please? War kills lots of young men (and now, young women, too); it cripples others in body and many, many more in mind. Young women not allowed to work in well-paid jobs and not able to marry a healthy, sound man (let alone one they could actually love) will sustain themselves how? The pretty ones by becoming the mistresses of dirty old warmongers, perhaps, at least for as long as they stay pretty. The others are out of luck.

  2. This is an excellent article. We honor our troops, but do them a disservice by not acknowledging the emotional damages being done. They are all changed when they return home, and multiple tours should have been recognized as a recipe for trauma disorders. We call them warriors and take away the human so that they can fulfill their duties, then send them home to be human again–and many carry physical wounds that are a daily reminder of the war. We cannot solve all the world’s problems on the backs of our service men and women, for they are the ultimate victims.

  3. Marines had to be disarmed before Leon Panetta could talk to them… I’m old enough to remember the “fragging” incidents of Vietnam, but this is special. How much does this have to do with the fact that these enormously stressed young people are being bombarded constantly with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News?

  4. I am an Australian so obviously there are some probably major differences between here and the USA,but since we went “all the way with LBJ” into Vietnam we have been involved in most, if not all, the conflicts that the USA have been part of, so I expect that there will be strong parallels.
    For the last 2 years I have been doing casual taxi driving and have come to the conclusion that the actual costs of war, any war, are greatly minimised. I work in a coastal tourist orientated community just north of Brisbane. The same area where the “crocodile hunter” originated.
    On any given day more than half of my income is from taxi-ing DVA clients to and from various medical appointments. With a fleet of 125 taxis and all of the drivers that I have spoken to reporting ther same percentages, this is an enormous cost, just for the transport. It does not include the charges of the doctors or hospitals. Many of the permanent residents are quite elderly and represent the continuing expenses of World War II.
    I am in no way questioning the validity in supporting the returned servicemen and their families but these ongoing costs for many decades must be a substantial drain on any country’s economy. It is not just the cost of the weapons fired today, the wages paid next pay day, the costs will continue year after year after year.

  5. A friend I had years ago was fragged but survived (I saw his scars and he told me about it), and he had lost a buddy to fragging. They were officers and had major problems with drug trafficking and addiction where they served.

    I think it was far more common than admitted (at least by his account).

    Some of my friends today are Vets, and a couple are still dealing with the problems caused by being in combat.

  6. So the person who did the murders had a meltdown? I wondered… with all the horrible things that we’ve heard about (here and in a couple of less conservative venues), I wondered if this was more of the same… trying to stir the pot and bring us into WWIII with the Islamic nations.

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