Imani Henry / Workers World – 2008-02-02 00:01:52
(January 31, 2008) — Since Jan. 13, the Sunday New York Times has run as its main front page story a weekly investigative series focused on “the 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war” as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Since the Times is the leading bourgeois media mouthpiece in the US, this multimedia series, entitled “War Torn,” has generated both outrage and praise from both readers and other publications around the country.
Outside the US, this equation of US soldiers with murderers is no shocking realization, but an unfortunate reality. Sent by the US government onto every continent of the world, US military personnel are ordered and encouraged to commit countless acts of murder and torture on daily basis.
At least 1.6 million US troops have been deployed around the world since 2001. As a direct result of the US invasion and occupation of their country, more than 1 million Iraqi civilians have died violently since 2003, according to estimates based on a Johns Hopkins study.
In truth there are absolutely no statistics to measure the severity of the emotional trauma as a result of centuries of colonization and imperialist war on the majority of the world’s peoples.
What is PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health website, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.”
Traumatic events like violent personal assaults, natural disasters or military combat are traditionally classified as causes of PTSD. More progressive mental health workers have also included systematic racism, lesbian/gay/bi/trans oppression, homelessness and capitalism itself as PTSD factors.
The NIMH goes on to report that PTSD affects about 7.7 million adults in the United States. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse or one or more of the other anxiety disorders. Symptoms of PTSD include sleep-related disorders such as nightmares, anxiety, impaired memory, as well as anger, loss of control, irritability and hyper-vigilance.
Much has been documented about the high percentage of Vietnam War veterans who face chronic homelessness, substance abuse and/or who become psychiatrically institutionalized or jailed.
Part I of the “War Torn” series reported that in the mid-1980s, veterans made up a fifth of the country’s inmate population. There were so many Vietnam veterans behind bars that Vietnam Veterans of America created chapters in prisons. In a report last May, the Veterans Administration Inspector General George Opfer estimated 1,000-5,000 suicides per year among all veterans.
Currently, the Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit law firm, has a lawsuit against the VA, the governmental agency that is supposed to oversee benefits for veterans. DRA argues that there is now a backlog of more than 600,000 PTSD claim applications, with some dating back to the Vietnam era. “Of the 750,000 veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, at least 15 percent are thought to suffer from PTSD,” according to DRA. (injuryboard.com)
The Part I article also pointed out, “Clearly, committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways, with crumbling marriages, mounting debt, deepening alcohol dependence or more-minor tangles with the law.”
The Cause and Effects of PTSD in Soldiers
The vast majority of the US military personnel is from the working class. According to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen Web site, the largest proportion of soldiers killed have been between the ages of 19-23, with 21 year olds having the highest death rate. Twenty-one is also the legal age to consume alcohol in the US, while 18 year olds are recruited into the military right out of high school.
Much has been written on the economic draft that has forced young workers of many nationalities into the US military since 2001, including immigrants. They are told it is an opportunity for job training and access to higher education. Many young workers from the poorest communities are lured in by the free housing, health care benefits and the guarantee of three meals a day. The first thing they are trained to do, though, is to kill or be killed.
The group Veterans for Common Sense sued under the Freedom of Information Act to find out that US government documents report that 4,400 US soldiers have been killed and 67,600 injured or wounded on the battlefield since 2001. (veteransforcommonsense.org)
Instead of providing young workers with jobs, health care, housing, education and mental health services here at home, the US government spends more than $270 million a day to use them as cannon fodder in Iraq.
With each passing year of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer new recruits have joined the military. According to Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW), over the last five years, only 25 percent of the troops in Iraq are there for their first tour, while 50 percent are on their second tour, and the remaining 25 percent have been there three times or more. On Jan. 17, several newspapers reported that based on a military study, up to 20 percent of US troops in Iraq have experienced a concussion, and thousands are suffering from some form of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) because of bomb blast explosions.
All of these factors have also taken a serious toll on the mental health of soldiers.The Army reported in December that 85 active duty soldiers are confirmed or suspected of committing suicide in 2007, the highest amount since 1990. There has also been a growth of anti-war resistance and AWOLS [absences without leave] among US troops.
PTSD Fuels Iraqi Tesistance
After 12 years of economic sanctions, the Iraqi people have endured the emotional trauma and economic devastation of five years of a racist colonial occupation by the US.
About.com estimates 2,255,000 Iraqis have been displaced inside Iraq while upwards of 2.1 million to 2.25 million Iraqis are now refugees in Syria and Jordan because of the occupation. (Jan. 16)
The Iraqi unemployment rate is 27 to 60 percent, even where the curfew is not in effect. Access to electricity in an Iraqi home may be as minimum as 1-5 hours a day. As of June 2007, 28 percent of Iraqi children suffer from chronic malnutrition. (CNN, July 30, 2007)
At the same time, with each year of the occupation the Iraqi resistance forces continue to grow. In November 2003, it was estimated there were 15,000 Iraqi fighters. By October 2006, it was estimated to be 20,000-30,000. As of June 2007, the armed resistance fighters numbered over 70,000.
Because it is a US election year, the plight of active duty troops and veterans is being paid lip service by politicians from both bourgeois parties. They are tripping over themselves proposing or signing on to new legislation to prevent suicide among veterans by providing mandatory mental health counseling for returning soldiers and monies for research for PSTD in the military.
The bottom line is that if Congress or any of the presidential candidates really gave a damn about the mental health of US soldiers they would bring them all home right now.
Ultimately, the end of the war and the fight for health care for the veterans will not be decided in the voting booth. In 2008, the best “therapy” for the trauma that capitalism inflicts is for working-class people to continue to protest out in the streets.
Imani Henry has been a worker in the social service field for the last 15 years. Lorraine Ramirez assisted with research for this article.
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