Baghdad in Middle America

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Honoring vets means nothing at all unless it means honoring the deeply gouged personal truths each experienced during deployment. But the dismissal of such truths is as much a part of war, and its aftermath, as the propaganda and geopolitical whoppers necessary to launch it.

The problem with these individual truths is that they seldom smack of glory. More often, they’re simply mundane and hellish, and slowly eat the vet’s soul. The clinical name for this is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it’s the phrase I heard most frequently and most distinctly this past weekend, during the grim, pained acknowledgement — I can hardly call it celebration — of Veterans Day.

Ray Parrish, a vets’ counselor and Vietnam vet, was adamantly pessimistic as he spoke to 100 or so people gathered on a bitter, gray Sunday morning at the river in downtown Chicago, about the psychic toll our current wars are exacting on the ones who are fighting them.

Noting that the standard tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan is 15 months (three months more than Nam), that two or three tours of duty are common, and that maybe eight or nine months of continuous battle conditions — little sleep, ever-present terror, the necessity to kill — is about all a normal human being can take, Parrish said: “It is inevitable that every soldier is coming back with PTSD — without exception.”

Add to this the VA’s rote denial of claims — “a lot of vets say the whole strategy of the VA is to keep delaying till they die,” Parrish said — and the serious chance a GI suffering from PTSD will receive a dishonorable discharge for one reason or another (and have no eligibility for mental-health or any other kind of care), the psychological crisis we’re in for as a nation is staggering.

Another veterans’ advocate, Tod Ensign of the New York-based Citizen Soldier, said he expected a “tsunami” of mental-health problems among vets in the coming months — and a recent CBS news investigation indicates that the tsunami is already under way. In 2005, for instance, there were at least 6,256 suicides among vets (in 45 states that submitted data), a rate more than double the national average, CBS reported. The highest rate — no surprise — was among the twentysomethings, who are freshly back from the war on terror.

Put this in the context of vets with serious physical injuries or illnesses (plus, no doubt, PTSD as well), so many of whom get minimal and grudging treatment or no treatment at all, and we find ourselves witnessing . . . well, Baghdad in Middle America. This is what Bush, Cheney and the neocons have bequeathed us. No war truly ends, but the stain of a criminally unnecessary war has little to check its spread.

Treatment of PTSD? Uh, stop right there. “Treatment” is a bogus word, a joke, a sterile denaturing of the quagmire of horror and guilt that the sufferer lives with as a life companion. PTSD is not a “problem” to be “corrected” with, say, a drug. It is a terminal condition, an injection of hell into the veins and marrow and psyche. The word for dealing with it is “redemption,” and it begins with telling the truth.

And there’s the problem.

“Every vet feels the necessity to tell the truth to the American people, but is afraid to talk about it,” Parrish said.

The military command structure — the immediate context of their lives — certainly has no use for it. It has a war to sell. A vet haunted by the memory of, say, accidentally killing an Iraqi civilian will not have much to contribute to this cause.

Consider, for instance, the deeply troubling story of the “Marlboro Marine,” Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller. His face became an instant icon of the war on terror when, during a lull in the U.S. assault on Fallujah in November 2004, his photo was snapped by L.A. Times photographer Luis Sinco. Miller, leaning against a wall, savoring a cigarette, his face streaked with war paint and blood, had the look of a battle-weary American hero. Within 24 hours, the picture had run in more than 150 U.S. newspapers.

As an accidental celebrity, Miller, the grunt, was suddenly a beloved and valuable commodity up the chain of command. Shockingly, he was offered the chance to go home before his tour of duty ended because, according to Sinco’s lengthy account in the L.A. Times this week, “nobody wanted to see him wounded or dead.” Miller refused the offer.

Sinco’s remarkable story details the reality behind the icon. In the ensuing three years, the Marlboro Marine’s life has gone to hell: PTSD, blackouts, nightmares, alcoholism, emotional volatility (he was discharged from the Marines after he attacked a sailor whose whistling reminded him of a rocket-propelled grenade). His marriage fell apart, as did his career plans. He’s in and out of rehab; his anguished memories are still inside him.

When we honor our vets, do we honor the cardboard glory or the nightmarish truth of their lives? And more importantly, when the usual suspects begin swaggering toward a new war, will we pause and consider the truth still festering from the last one?