Their stories tell us why veterans need our support Their stories tell us why veterans need our support
Nov. 11, 2006 12:00 AM
“The extreme and terrible nature of war touches something essential about being human. For those who survive, the victors and the defeated, the battle lives in their memories and nightmares … It survives as hundreds of searing private memories, memories of loss and triumph, shame and pride, struggles each veteran must fight each day of his life.”
– Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern Warfare.
With the election behind us, our re-elected and newly elected representatives need to put partisan politics aside and support our Iraq war veterans.
We can wave flags and march in Veterans Day parades, but we are failing in our obligation to our soldiers after they’re discharged, as I learned from talking with two local Marines and a Marine mom about their experiences. They asked to remain anonymous, so I’ve used pseudonyms.
All struggled with returning to civilian life, but what made their stories most disturbing was the repeated feeling of abandonment by the armed forces they had so proudly served.
Jack, who served two tours in Iraq, told me that when he returned, they give him a brief lecture on behaving himself such as “not beating your wife” and a five-minute discharge interview with a psychologist, then they sent him on his way. For those suffering mentally, honesty only delays your discharge, and in many cases, the worst problems take months to appear. No one called to check up on him, even when depression overtook him eight months later. The only time he hears from the military is when they try to convince him to go back to Iraq. “It’s like they don’t give a (expletive),” said Jack.
When Neil was activated after 9/11, he was sent to Afghanistan and later on to Iraq for 1 1/2 years. Neil, who is in his 30s, took a large pay cut to serve and was forced to sell his home because he could no longer afford the mortgage payments. Due to six kidney stones from salt tablets given to him in Iraq, he’s lost three jobs and is unemployed.
Neil told me how nothing can prepare you for the incredible nastiness of war. Every time they drove, they were shot at. Once, as they approached a petrified 7-year-old boy, the boy wet his pants and then exploded. Under these circumstances you have adrenaline rushes, Jack told me, which, though horrifying, create an addictive hormonal high that leads many veterans to try to replicate it through drugs or placing themselves in danger.
Such a chaotic, violent environment also leads to depression and anger.
Vicky always had a close relationship with her daughter Ashley until she returned from Iraq. Two months back, Ashley couldn’t sleep and then she became increasingly moody and angry. Now Ashley shuts Vicky out. Ashley now drinks heavily.
Neil’s temper was getting out of control. He was afraid he “might snap on someone.” But he said he received the brush-off at the VA hospital. After a nurse told him it was the end of her shift and to come back, Neil walked the grounds in disbelief.
Such shabby treatment has typified Neil’s experiences at the VA hospital. For his kidney stones, they offer narcotics and tell him to wait, even when it took him 10 weeks to pass a stone. He skips the drugs so he can try to hold a job, but when the jagged salt stone passes, it “cuts you in half,” and then he can’t work due to the pain , that caused him to recently lose his job as a manager. He said he gets no financial compensation, just pain and aggravation.
Jack explained he felt out of place when he came back. Ironically, despite the danger, he “felt more comfortable in Iraq” where he sensed his “life had more meaning,” even though he fully recognizes now that the mission was launched under false pretenses and has been horrendously mismanaged. As a Marine captain, he returned a second time out of “an obligation to my men.”
It’s urgent that we support them.
Dave Wells of Tempe serves on the board of Deep Democracy, which sponsors Vets4Vets (www.Vets4Vets.us), a Tucson-based nationwide peer support group for veterans of the Iraq War. Contact him at Dave@Make DemocracyWork.org.