Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
This Memorial Day my thoughts went back to about ten years ago, when I learned as close to first-hand as one can get, short of being in the Army, just how abusive and uncaring the military establishment can be. A close family member was deployed to Iraq to fight in “Shock and Awe,” George W. Bush’s destabilizing effort to free Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein. I’ll call him Jim.
Jim had been in Special Forces for most of his eighteen years in the military. He had fought in the first Iraq War and had participated in many classified operations. His missions and training had caused him chronic pain and other long-term problems – skin cancers, unexplained neurological symptoms, and a back injury that required surgery. When Jim was deployed to Iraq for George W. Bush’s war, he had not fully recovered from his back surgery and had not been released for full active duty. He required regular pain medicine to cope with his recovery from the surgery. Nevertheless, he was sent to fight with his unit in Iraq.
During the worst of Jim’s pain, he sought a private doctor to prescribe pain medication so that he could avoid letting his command know how bad his back was. He did not want to appear weak. He was strongly motivated to continue to be a part of his unit. He knew that if he let his next-in-command know of his condition, he would no longer be allowed to continue in his Special Forces unit. His “band of brothers” feelings were strong.
About six weeks into his deployment to Iraq, Jim’s dependency on drugs for pain control became so apparent that he was sent home from Iraq before his unit returned. As I learned eventually, in addition to physical pain, Jim suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had trouble sleeping, exhibited startle responses frequently both when asleep and when awake, had nightmares and flashbacks, was uncomfortable in crowds, had an uneven temperament, was often agitated, and had trouble concentrating.
Soon after Jim returned home, military doctors sent him to Walter Reed Army Hospital (now phased out of service) for another back surgery. I accompanied him for the surgery and stayed with him for several days afterward, including driving him home after he was released from Walter Reed. On this trip, I observed most of the symptoms mentioned above.
But these were the least of Jim’s troubles. Soon after returning to his base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, his command started court martial proceedings, intent on washing him out of the Army because of his dependence on pain medication. They wanted to give him a bad conduct discharge. After he hired (at great expense) a civilian attorney with extensive military law experience, his punishment became a general discharge. He was not allowed to retire, though he had nineteen years in the service.
After he was discharged, he filed for VA benefits and another struggle ensued, during which he had to prove that his disability was service connected. His attorney proved his high fees were worth the cost. With much support also from his family, eventually, Jim prevailed and received VA benefits and continues his recovery from his nineteen years in the military. At this point, almost a decade since his last combat, it is unclear whether he will ever recover from his injuries. His treatment by the military has been callous and devastating for his family as well as for him.
Unfortunately, Jim’s story is not unique or even a worst-case example of what the military does to men and women who join up. Those in the armed servies suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD are commonly dumped into the civilian sector without benefits – no pension, no health insurance, no support. According to the Department of Defense, these conditions together likely affect more than half a million veterans of the last eleven years of American wars in the Middle East. They represent about one-quarter of all those who have served during this period.
As reported by Dave Phillips in The Colorado Springs Gazette <http://cdn.csgazette.biz/soldiers/day1.html>, what happened to Jim seems to be standard operating practice for today’s volunteer military:
“After the longest period of war in American history, more soldiers are being discharged for misconduct than at any time in recent history, and soldiers with the most combat exposure are the hardest hit. A Gazette investigation based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the annual number of misconduct discharges is up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded. At the eight Army posts that house most of the service’s combat units, including Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, misconduct discharges have surged 67 percent. All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army since 2006. They end up in cities large and small across the country, in hospitals and homeless shelters, abandoned trailers and ratty apartments, working in gas fields and at the McDonald’s counter. The Army does not track how many, like Alvaro, were kicked out with combat wounds.”
Figures supplied by the Army Human Resources Command indicate that soldiers discharged for alleged misconduct rose by about 63% during the six-year span between 2006 and 1012. Mark Waple, a civilian attorney who handles military cases and a retired Army officer told The Gazette: “I’ve been working on this since the ’70s, and I have never seen anything like this. There seems to be a propensity to use minor misconduct for separation, even for service members who are decorated in combat and injured.”
Politicians are quick to declare our duty to provide support for our troops, including when they return. Last October, President Barack Obama called it “the single most sacred obligation this country has.” More recently, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall said, “The American people have an unbreakable covenant with our veterans and we must provide them the very best health care.”
But the military and the VA seem unable to provide that support and recognize that what we require volunteer service men and women to do leads directly to PTSD and often causes them to be wounded in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, told the attorney prosecuting two Marines for the murder of another Marine, “You can’t handle the truth.” At least in part, what Col. Jessup refers to is the perceived need to do horrible things in the service of this country, as well as actually taking actions that would be perceived by most people as despicable – killing children, bombing families going peacefully about their daily lives, destroying homes. Sometimes such deeds are purposeful, other times accidental. But all take a toll on the human psyche.
Our fighting men and women are not super humans, unfazed by what they to do as members of the military. They are not playing video games for the highest score. They are placed in life-and-death situations in the service of their country. What they do sometimes makes them lose their moorings. Sometimes it makes them sick. Sometimes it leads them to make wrong choices. No matter what some military leaders may claim, they are not weaklings or cowards if their mental and physical health deteriorates. They are human. Twenty-two veterans of our wars commit suicide each day. That should be sufficient for anyone to understand how wrong it is to compel our military men and women to do what we have made them do, and then discard them.
It is long past time to start treating our service men and women as the sentient human beings they are. We should not expect more from them than the human mind and body can be reasonably expected to endure. When we do ask them to commit horrible deeds, we need to expect that some of them will not respond to their experiences well. For these, and all the rest, we need a system that is compassionate, not one that is operated by the self-righteous and arrogant. We need to stop punishing people for the logical consequences of what we require them to do.
If our politicians really care about the service and sacrifice of our military members, they will change a system that is unfair, degrading, and inhumane into one based on what we know about human psychology, neurology, and physiology. We will stop treating these service men and women as automatons and recognize that what they have become is partly, if not largely, a result of what we had them do. We will take some responsibility for their circumstances and do our best to make up for our own transgressions manifest in the tasks we gave them. It is the very least that should be expected of a great country.
As many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan said one year ago at a rally in Chicago, it is long past the time that we should “Honor the dead, Heal the wounded, Stop the wars.”
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.