The Devalued Currency of Truth

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

“I asked Sgt. Gaskins about his hopes for the future. He replied that he has no future.” — psychotherapist Rosemary Masters

This is the cost of our wars, and sooner or later we need to begin paying down the debt. But it is only payable in the devalued currency of the truth. For now, Soldier, we’re still in denial and you’re under arrest.

Welcome to PTSD Nation.

We don’t have a draft because in Vietnam our draftee army mutinied and refused, finally, to continue pursuing a hellish, unwinnable war. Today, as we pursue an equally hellish, equally unwinnable war, we are in the process of destroying our all-volunteer, gung-ho army, one GI at a time.

Brad Gaskins, of Newark, N.J., was at one time as gung-ho as a soldier can get, the ideal recruit, the boy with a hero’s heart. He’d been the starting quarterback on his high school football team and had enlisted in the Army at age 17, while still a senior. That was 1999. He wanted to serve his country, fight hard, win a medal. He swelled with pride when he wore his olive-green dress uniform to church. When we think “support our troops,” we’re thinking of Brad Gaskins.

He served a stint in Kosovo, came home, made sergeant in three years. When we went into Iraq, he was on the front line of the invasion, pushing into Baghdad. Here’s where it started: the horror that slowly turned to nightmares, that wrecked his marriage, that pushed him to the edge of sanity and resulted in his going AWOL in 2006. This was after two tours of duty in Iraq, and after he could get no help at Fort Drum, in Watertown, N.Y., where he was stationed.

In 2003, after the shock-and-awe bombing campaign, “his unit was tasked to bury the bodies of the Iraqi dead,” Masters wrote in her psychological evaluation of Gaskins a month ago. “He had found this assignment very disturbing.

“Bulldozers were used to push the bodies into mass graves,” she wrote. “The bodies would fall apart, the smell was unforgettable. He felt badly that the bodies were treated with such disrespect. There was no effort made to identify the dead so that their families could know what happened to them. He was expected to handle many of the dead bodies which were significantly decayed and often ‘oozing goop’ into the ground.”

That was only at the beginning of Gaskin’s first tour in Iraq, and it gets worse. But I pause long enough to grope for some appropriate emotions. There are none, of course. None that encompass bulldozed corpses, mass graves, and headlines that declared “Mission Accomplished.”

This was when we were winning. Awareness of the dirty side of the war was not collective. It was borne, and suppressed, only by the ones who were there, doing what they were told.

When Gaskins returned home after a 10-month tour, the hell he had witnessed was already starting to back up and spill into his dreams. Then he was sent back. “He stated that his second tour was much worse than the first,” Masters wrote. He told her of the death of a friend; the aftermath of a suicide bombing; and of a horrible accident in which an IED, in the process of being dismantled, went off and “blew out the front of a house and killed a family of four, including a little girl and a little boy while they were eating breakfast.”

Though Gaskins was not the one who made the mistake, or the one in charge, he was there and has absorbed 100 percent of the guilt for not insisting the area be cordoned off, Masters wrote. He “clearly recalls the clothing the children were wearing.”

This is the anatomy of a PTSD diagnosis. The report goes on and on. Since his return from the second tour of duty, Gaskins has been seriously dysfunctional, Masters reported. Flashbacks and dreams will suddenly propel him back to Iraq. Once, when his wife surprised him, he held a knife to her throat. Once he hit her. He has headaches, he can’t eat, he has no interest in life.

After a year of AWOL, he contacted the veterans’ advocacy organization Citizen Soldier, who secured his appointment with the psychotherapist. A week ago he was planning to surrender to authorities at Fort Drum and plead for recognition of his condition and an honorable discharge. He held a press conference at the Different Drummer Cafe in Watertown, which is operated by Citizen Soldier, but shortly before I had a chance to conduct a phone interview with him — and while a local TV station’s camera was rolling — he was arrested and led away in handcuffs.

The last I heard he’d been transferred to Walter Reed, but his status with the Army is up in the air.

In her PTSD evaluation, Masters wrote: “He wonders if God is punishing him because before he joined the Army he thought of war as something fun and exciting.”

I wonder where he got that idea?