Sometimes The War Never Ends (UPDATED)
A woman who told neighbors she feared her ex-husband would kill her was among six people found fatally shot in three suburban Philadelphia homes, and her Marine veteran former husband was on the run. – Maryclaire Dale and Sean Carlin, “Search Intensifies For Gunman Who Kills 6”, news.yahoo.com, December 16, 2014
It was the late 1980’s, and I was working at a country club near my home. I was walking behind a foursome sharing stories from the Second World War. I couldn’t help overhearing them because, being old and hard of hearing, they had to talk loudly to be heard. One man was talking about an anti-aircraft gunner during a battle – I have no idea what theater. The gun was in a turret, so it might even have been aboard a ship. In any event, when the battle was over, he wasn’t coming out of the turret. It hadn’t been hit, so no one knew what was going on. The man telling the story said he and two buddies entered the turret and the man was standing, his hands still on the anti-aircraft gun, his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open. He had vomited on the gun, down the front of his clothes. He had shit his pants. He refused to answer any questions. It took four men to pry his hands off the gun and lead him out of the turret. Two days later, he ate a bullet from his sidearm while refusing to talk to anyone.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is as old as war. Thucydides wrote about it in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In Wolrd War I it was called “shell shock”; very often the Germans would begin an offensive with an hours long fusillade of artillery. Reports from veterans include men running screaming out of the trenches, driven insane by the constant barrage of shells, only to be cut down by German machine guns or snipers. In World War II, they retained the name, adding “the thousand yard stare” as a descriptor.
PTSD became a clinical diagnosis at the end of the war in Vietnam. More technical and refined as a description, it was little more than a therapeutic descriptor of the mental trauma brought on by participation in combat. No matter how much training our soldiers and marines and sailors have; no matter how much our training camps try to replicate battle-like conditions, including live-fire obstacle courses, at the end of the day nothing can prepare even the hardiest individual for the moment it becomes clear other human beings are trying to kill them. All the training in the world cannot erase the images of bodies torn apart by bullets and shrapnel from artillery. The strongest, most resilient person might well break as “the enemy”, a person no older than himself, with no personal grievance, comes charging at them wanting only to kill. The late actor Charles Durning talked about having to kill a German soldier, no older than 17, armed only with a knife. The fight became fierce and Durning was forced to beat the young man to death with a rock. Afterward, Durning admitted, he sat in that field, holding the corpse of the young man he’d killed, weeping.
According to the website Traumalines.wordpress.org, back in 2011, Pres. Obama sought to increase funding for treating PTSD in his budget for FY2012. That same year, 2012, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), issued a report entitled The Veteran’s Health Administration Treatment of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury Among Recent Combat Veterans. Among its findings was that mandated information sharing between the Department of Defense and Department of Veteran’s Affairs, to better coordinate treatment for service members rotating out of the service to civilian life, was “a work in progress” (a marvelous bureaucratic way of saying “it sucks”). Further, initial findings were as follows:
CBO’s primary analysis focused on VHA patients who
had not been treated at specialized polytrauma facilities,
which provide care for veterans who suffer from more
than one complex physical or mental trauma. That analysis
examined the use of VHA’s health care services and
cost of providing those services for 496,800 OCO veterans
in four mutually exclusive groups:
103,500 patients with PTSD (but not TBI);
8,700 patients with TBI (but not PTSD);
26,600 patients with both PTSD and TBI; and
358,000 patients with neither of those two conditions.
Whether or not the suspect in the Pennsylvania killings has PTSD we cannot know at this time. According to the CBO report, cases of PTSD are underreported due to stigma, lack of access to facilities, or simple fear rooted in PTSD itself. That does not mean, however, that he is not suffering from the illness. According to an April 25 story in The Washington Post, the Pentagon claimed that suicide rates among active duty personnel was down 15 percent in 2013. He also reports, however, that Irag/Afghanistan Veterans Against The War not only dispute those numbers, but insist the crisis among veterans remains unaddressed.
But at least one veterans group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says a similar focus on prevention is needed to lower the rate among former service members. An estimated 22 veterans killed themselves each day in 2010, compared with 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Clearly, we need to do a better job for the men and women we send overseas to fight our wars for us. Not only as active-duty personnel, but once they rotate out of service and enter civilian life, the wounds of war continue to fester, leading to higher rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, broken families, and suicide, assault, and homicide. Again, I do not know if the suspect in the Pennsylvania killings was diagnosed with PTSD. I do know, however, that, if he is, he is just one among tens of thousands who are in desperate need of help, help we as a nation seem unable to give to those from whom we’ve already asked so much.
UPDATE: Among the reasons for PTSD for women veterans (and, I would add, men as well, although grossly underreported) are incidents of sexual violence, often from fellow troops. According to the Feminist Majority Blog, the United States Senate has blocked debate, essentially denying a vote, on The Military Justice Improvement Act. It isn’t enough that our young women volunteer, even though they are only now being rotated in to combat areas. It isn’t enough they are trained to fly fighter planes, drive tanks, guard prisoners, and find themselves confronting an enemy who may well be even more enraged fighting a woman. They also have to face the threat of sexual assault and rape from men who are supposed to have their backs.
The sticking point is removing reporting and investigation of incidents of sexual assaults from the chain of command. As all the services have independent or semi-independent criminal investigative services, it seems to me turning these crimes over to them, rather than making them offenses reported up the chain of command where decisions are made to move forward with investigation and prosecution makes sense, especially since, as one retired Air Force Colonel and prosecutor said, “current process an “ineffective, broken system of justice,” that “undermines the military I love.”
Clearly, we still have so far to go.