Understanding the “New Vets”
You may consider this Part II of Understanding the US Military Veteran. If I did not consider this such an important subject, I would not keep writing about it, but It IS. Each of the wars that the United States Military has fought spawned individualized veterans with many different problems and very little understanding of those problems from the American public for which they fought. The current wars these “new vets” are fighting are no different, but their individualism is being buried deeper perhaps than that of previous veterans. After all, the all-out assault on individualism is the most common problem the American public shares with military veterans.
Indeed, since the Department Of Homeland Security’s recent issuance of the now infamous “domestic terrorist” warnings, individualists, both civilian and military, have been put on notice that individualism will not be tolerated in the future socialist America. While many have expressed outrage at the blanket condemnation of returning military veterans from foreign war theaters, in my opinion they fail to explore the real reason for such outrage. The American civilian public must not continue to answer veterans’ problems with standardized solutions.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to understand that today’s vets are being returned to home bases or civilian life with a pre-packaged message that misses the target of helping them. All returning vets can be lumped into the same diagnosis of PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) if they have seen any combat or results of combat during their deployment, but true “help” with the effects must be individualized or it is of no help at all.
From the “horse’s mouth” comes a better narration of this than I could ever give:
“The military says that they're giving exit counseling and reintegration. What they're calling reentry counseling, in my experience, was, ‘Don't drink and drive. Pay your bills on time. Don't beat your spouse. Don't kick your dog.’ All of these things that once you've reached a certain age, you're supposed to know. None of it is, ‘If you have discomfort with dealing with crowds, if you don't feel comfortable with your spouse, if you can't sleep in a bed, if you don't want to drive down the road because you think everything is a bomb, here's what to do.’ No psychological or de-stress counseling is involved in this reintegration to garrison. And that's just if you're staying in the Army. If you're leaving the Army, you get, ‘Here's how to write a resume.’"
- Sue Randolph, from an article by Emily DePrang.
I would encourage you to read this article even though the subject is handled in what some might consider to be a negative way.
Another quote from Sue Randolf, whose job in Iraq was searching through “warehouses of documents, chemicals and parts of things that could be WMDs”:
"People walk up to me and say, 'Thank you for your service.' And I know they mean well, but I want to ask, 'Do you know what you're thanking me for?’”
She holds Masters in Political Science, Middle East Studies, and Arabic from the University Of Michigan and she grew up in Saudi Arabia. She admits that she joined the army because she needed help paying off her educational loan debt, (perhaps the wrong reason for joining) but I respect her for saying that she doesn’t feel used because she signed up for it. While she holds a hindsight, negative view of the war in Iraq now, what she has to say about how returning vets are being treated is a very telling part about this story, and it illustrates so well my point:
“There isn't enough money in this country right now to make some of these guys feel like what they went through was worthwhile.”
She is so right! This problem does not need just money thrown at it – it needs in-depth public understanding for these people and their great sacrifices. Her final note:
“We have no comprehension of the psychological cost of this war. I know kids in Iraq who killed themselves. I know kids that got killed. OK, that's apparently the price of doing business. But multiply me by 2 million. If I'm fairly high-functioning, what about the ones that aren't? They're going back to small-town America, and their families aren't going to know what to do with them. It's like, what do we do with Johnny now?”
Ms. DePrang covers the story of two other returning vets in this article. Their stories are very different because they are individuals. Michael Goss is described as “struggling with severe PTSD” and failing to receive the help he needs due to an “other than honorable” discharge. In Michael’s own words:
“I gave the Army seven years. It was supposed to be my career. I did two tours in Iraq, in 2003 and 2005. But during the last one, I started to get depressed. I lost faith in my chain of command. I became known as a rogue NCO. That's how I got my other-than-honorable discharge.”
It doesn’t take much imagination if you know anything at all about the military to understand how one might be labeled a “rogue NCO” but understanding is not packaged into the help that veterans like Michael have definitely earned, but do not get, in my opinion.
That it does not come easy for soldiers like Michael to do what they are expected to do is an understatement. Once again, in his own words:
“One night they said to me, ‘Sgt. Goss, gather your best guys.’ I say, ‘Where we going?’ They say, ‘Don't worry about it, just come on.’ So we get in the car and go. We drive three blocks away, and there's six dead soldiers on the ground. They say, ‘You're casualty collecting tonight.’ I'm not prepared for that. I wasn't taught how to do that. But you're there. So you pick them up, and you put them in a body bag, pieces by pieces, and you go back to your unit, and you stand inside your room. And they're like, ‘You're going on a patrol, come on.’ You're like, ‘Hang on a minute. Let me think about what I just did here.’ I just put six American guys in damn body bags. Nobody's prepared for that. Nobody's prepared for that thing to blow up on the side of the road. You're talking, and you're driving, and then something blows up, and the next thing you know, two of your guys are missing their faces. They just want you to get up the next day and go, go, let's do it again, you're a soldier. Yeah, I got the soldier part, OK?”
Michael says he can pinpoint the night he actually “got” PTSD. In the article he tells the story of killing an 8-year-old girl.
“I tried my best to bring her back to life, but there was no use. But that's what triggered my depression.”
This is not some monster, killing machine that has been used up and needs to be thrown away. This is a compassionate human being that was forced to do things that have forever changed him – and now, it seems to him that no one cares:
“So let's put this in perspective now. I got two Iraq tours, multiple kills, I picked up plenty of dead bodies, American bodies, enemy bodies. I killed an 8-year-old girl, which still haunts me to this day. I come back home. My wife finds somebody else. I'm sleeping on my brother's couch while she has the apartment, the kids, the car, everything that we worked on together. I work as a bail bondsman making $432 a week, which all goes to my brother. I have to fight just to see my boys because she's at the point where she thinks I don't deserve to see my kids because I haven't had help for my PTSD. She's scared I might do something stupid. And the VA won't help me out because of my other-than-honorable discharge. What else do you want to know?”
And then there’s the story of Rocky, who wished to remain anonymous. According to DePrang’s article, he doesn’t tell people he is a veteran and he doesn’t like to talk about it. But, he had this to say:
“You get to see what people are made of over there. You get to see how shallow people are, how weak they are. How strong they can be in horrible moments. And then how the people you should be looking up to are hiding, and you have to look out for them. You get to really see what a person is made of.”
Truer words were never spoken I’m sure. As he recalls this personal story, we can begin to see how even the strongest character traits are challenged to get back to “normal” after such experiences:
“One time, there was an RPG shooter shooting at me. He hit a Bradley in front of us, and we were in a Humvee. He hit the Bradley in front of us, and the round didn't go off. It got stuck in the mud. So the Bradley rolled back, and we rolled back. And I had to shoot the position-caller before I could shoot the actual shooter. He didn't have a gun, but I knew what he was doing. He was the one calling out what's going on. He was on the phone. So I sent a shot up 20 feet above him and below him and to the side of him. And he just stood there. On his phone, talking the whole time. Innocent people run. The bad guys stay and fight. If they're not running, they're going to be calling. That's the way I see it. So I shot him.”
The next quote contains language some may not be comfortable with, but in the attempt to reach that level of understanding I think is so important, here are Rocky’s words:
“After that, now I think, well, now I'm damned. Now I've done the worst thing. There's not much more worse you can do than shoot an unarmed person. It's not just, man, now I got to fucking deal with this. It's like, man, I hope nobody saw that, because I'll go to jail, too. You feel so horrible. You kind of die inside. There's really nothing beneath me now. I'm at the bottom of the barrel. You're worried about salvation and people finding out these dirty little secrets. It's not something that you wanted to do. It might be something that you had to do, that you accidentally did. Things happen. And then there's the whole fear of going to jail for trying to do what's right for your country -- it's bad. Sometimes you think people are shooting at you, and you'd rather just chance it because you're hoping they don't have an armor-piercing round.
But I'm not going to bow down. I know what I'm made of -- do you? Most people have no idea what matters. When I'm standing at the gates and I see St. Peter, I'll say, lemme in. I try to do right now. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. I go to school, maybe I'll earn a midlevel job. Just fly under the radar. I don't want any attention. I just want to be away from people. Not many people call me still. I keep it real dim in my apartment. I like it calm and quiet. This is what life's made of. Being able to relax and be safe. Watch a movie, play some video games. Just to sit back and have fun with your friends. That's beautiful.”
Here we have three individuals changed forever by their military service. All of them are hurting in their own way, needing more than anything else understanding for who they were and who they are now. This need goes far beyond anything politics can provide, but it is not beyond a country of individuals, who have benefited from the sacrifices of these young soldiers, to provide the support they so desperately need in the form of simple, human compassion and understanding.
Recently, the news of a soldier killing five others in a stress clinic on a base in Iraq has ebbed and flowed throughout most of the media. At any given time you can find stories on any and every network about it, and at other times, it is being swept under a rug somewhere. That’s just my opinion. Why? Oh, I don’t know – perhaps embarrassment over the possibility that such a horrendous event could occur just off the battlefield at a place that is set up to handle PTSD type stress. How do you think veterans who made it back home feel about this “friendly fire” incident? I think they are all individuals, and truthfully, they probably all feel differently about it. Realistically, what we should be more worried about is how do government officials feel? So many are already so quick to judge, it’s no telling what new warnings they might issue concerning returning vets.
In a recent article by Kyra Rotunda in the Christian Science Monitor, titled, US Soldiers Are Heroes, Not Terrorists, this may bring some comfort to those still clinging to the DHS warning:
“According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 26.5 of every 100,000 white males between 18 and 24 commit homicide per year. The statistic for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets is much lower. Only about 16 per 100,000 committed (or were charged with committing) homicide. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans appear to be significantly less likely than the average American male to commit a homicide – much less to become a terrorist.”
Here is another snip from the same article:
“Truth be told, veterans are more likely to become members of Congress than they are to become terrorists. In recent years, dozens of them hit the campaign trail and ran for Congress. Many were successful.
It is true that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face an uphill battle in civilian life. Many of them have served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan fighting terrorists who refuse to follow the laws of war. Some soldiers have watched their friends die. Others come home with permanent disabilities, including post- traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Despite all this, they love their country.”
We cannot know what America will ask of present and future military personnel in the coming years, decades and centuries, but we should strive to truly understand what has been asked of them in the past. We should, without question, extend our helping hands and compassionate hearts to each of these individuals and do what we can to bind up their wounds. In my humble opinion, they deserve nothing less.