Even in victory, soldiers return bearing unseen burdens

Charles Sheehan-Miles and Robert K. Musil

The little-told toll of combat is in the minds of the soldiers who fight. Every war, we forget the ordeal inflicted on soldiers, even those uninjured. After the war in Iraq, we must relearn how to help our warriors return home, adjust and cope with their experience.

There is terror in being hunted and trauma in the hunting that can affect the combat veteran for a lifetime. This truth does not match the heroic storytelling in books or movies. Such myth-making can sound hollow to the combat veteran. The reality of war is hardly told at all, in fact, even from one broadcast in real time, because the wounds are mental and confound popular expectations.

We rarely saw this pain during the rush to victory in Baghdad. Oliver Poole, embedded with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, captured a glimpse just as it began to dawn after one engagement resulting in more than 150 Iraqi soldiers dead or wounded and five Americans injured.

“When I see that many bodies, I just don’t want to be here any more,” he quoted one soldier.

“Why did we have to kill so many people?” another said. “There were so many deaths today.”

This experience doubtless was repeated for thousands of U.S. troops. In the first armored engagement through Baghdad on April 5, American tanks killed — by the Pentagon’s estimate — between 2,000 and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers. Even when the dead are the bad guys, combat can weigh in ways that those who don’t fight may never understand.

The magnitude of trauma from this war may not be known for months or even years, until the fighters come home and begin to cope with what they experienced in the liberation of Iraq. And to a country that hails the returning warriors as heroes in a righteous cause, the pain and confusion they bring home can appear alien, because they do not fit our myths of battle glory.

In past wars, complaints ranging from battle fatigue to Agent Orange effects and Gulf War illnesses were initially dismissed. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not even a psychological diagnosis until 1980.

We don’t know what new traumas our veterans will bear on their return from Iraq, but they must not receive such indifference — which warriors have fought for millennia — again. Odysseus, the hero of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” derives his name from the Greek word meaning “to suffer pain.” Our veterans must know there is no shame or dishonor in trying to cope with the trauma of combat. Indeed, it is an imperative. And we should be prepared to give when asked.

Families often bear the burden of a veteran’s trauma, and loved ones should know a few simple things to help their veterans readjust from combat to the comfort of home. They must welcome their return, love and listen and help the veterans get skilled treatment if needed. Families must not question, judge or insist that the veteran “get over it” or force “closure.” Most importantly, no one needs to cope alone. Free professional and confidential help is available for both veterans and their families.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has an outstanding program called the Readjustment Counseling Service, known as “Vet Centers.” There are centers in 200 locations across the country, including one in Chattanooga, and veterans can walk in anytime. They should bring their DD214, showing they served overseas during wartime.

Unfortunately, many veterans don’t even know the centers exist. And while Congress recently boosted funds for the VA, there is more we can do.

The VA could start with a publicity campaign featuring real veterans touting the Vet Centers’ services. The agency should also consider mandatory readjustment counseling for returning combat veterans before they leave the service. The New York Police Department took this initiative after Sept. 11, 2001. Required counseling gets around the stigma of seeking help by mandating treatment. Often providing first aid is the key to prevention and cure.

The Pentagon also should identify all deployed service members so the VA can accurately identify them when they seek medical or mental health care. Then the VA can monitor the rates of medical care, evaluate the effectiveness of VA treatment programs and keep the public informed about the state of their servicemen and women.

Such initiatives are only the beginning. To avoid the alienation and resentment many veterans feel after the fighting has ended, everyone must understand that trauma is part of any war and adjustment to peacetime is often difficult.

Odysseus’ loyal wife, Penelope, didn’t recognize her husband when he returned home 20 years after leaving for the Trojan Wars. But she welcomed him warmly, and with understanding, despite his change. We must do the same.

Charles Sheehan-Miles is a co-founder of Veterans for Common Sense, which advocates for U.S. troops, veterans’ rights and respect for civil liberties and international law. He served in the 24th Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War. Robert K. Musil is executive director and chief executive officer of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public health organization that seeks to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, achieve a sustainable environment and end firearms violence in America. He was an Army captain during the Vietnam era. Both groups opposed the war in Iraq.

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