Are Veterans Our Only Hope?

by , October 12, 2010

WASHINGTON – Joyce Wagner is one of those women who is supposed to be celebrated but instead has had to endure a unique hell seemingly reserved for women in the military. She was sexually assaulted in-theater by a fellow Marine who Wagner had trusted. She didn’t say anything for six years because she thought no one would believe her.

Today, Wagner looks pretty tough, tattoos and a ring in her nose, but it’s not hard to imagine her a fresh-faced 20-year-old, eager to prove her mettle with the other Marines in her unit. But the dues she paid didn’t make her a better Marine, they opened her eyes. Wagner, now 27, recalled the night she was on guard duty, when a female soldier was raped by another American at gunpoint in the barracks.

“It’s huge,” she said of assaults against servicewomen in the military, citing a 2008 survey that said upwards of 30 percent of women are raped. Wagner believes the number is much higher. “They just don’t report it.”

Despite keeping her secret for years, Wagner joined a dozen or so veterans on the ninth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan Thursday, and shared her story, briefly and in stark terms. Together, as members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), they demanded the military stop redeploying traumatized, brain damaged, drugged out soldiers and Marines to war. It is part of the group’s first national campaign, Operation: Recovery.

Wagner said despite a growing drinking problem and symptoms of PTSD, she redeployed in 2005. “I am here today because I don’t want another man or woman to go through what I went through.”

Recent studies and reports have indicated that a growing number of active duty service members – more than any other wartime cohort in American military history – are on drugs, illegal and otherwise. Military doctors begin prescribing questionable pill “cocktails” for soldiers in the field – for pain due to injury, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. Reports indicate some 12 percent in Iraq are being medicated; 15 percent in Afghanistan.

The prescriptions and self-medication continue when they get home, and, if they aren’t retired or medically boarded out (which, depending on the injury, could follow a hellish purgatory in a military trauma care unit), chances are they’ll redeploy to the war zone again, broadly sabotaging their chances for a ‘normal’ future as a fully functioning individual.

“In the last five years, suicide rates have increased year over year,” said Army veteran Zack Choate, who was in his dress uniform for the IVAW press conference on Thursday. In June, the Army found that active duty soldiers were killing themselves at the rate of one a day. Four Army soldiers stationed at Fort Hood in Texas killed themselves in September alone, bringing the record total of suicides there to 20 since the beginning of the year.

In a high-profile case last year, Army Sgt. John M. Russell killed five fellow soldiers in a military counseling center in Iraq. His father later told reporters his son had been “broke” by counselors before his death. He had done two previous tours of duty.

Choate said current counterinsurgency operations demand a constant feeding of the beast. The military needs every warm body it can get. Putting traumatized soldiers back into the fight is not only dangerous for them, but to everyone around them – fellow soldier and civilian alike. They hardly need to be shanghaied, but Choate said the military’s warrior ethos all but guarantees that most soldiers will volunteer to redeploy whether they are fit or not – they are duty-bound.

“I wanted to go back and fight again,” despite being high on psychotropic drugs. He had been hit by an IED during his first tour in Iraq in 2006. Out of a sense of “guilt” and other institutional pressures, he returned for a second tour. “It’s not only the pressure they directly put on you, but it’s the ‘values’ the military goes by and they want you to uphold that.”

Those “values,” such as never leaving a soldier behind, seem to fall off conspicuously when it comes soldiers seeking psychological help. Department of Defense Secretary Bob Gates may insist mental health is a priority, but many vets find only scorn and mockery when they approach commanding officers with their problems.

“Mental health in the Army is non-existent,” charges Ethan McCord, a former infantry soldier who can be seen carrying the wounded children from the car in the now-infamous WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video (read his eyewitness account here). The night of this traumatizing event, he approached his commanding officer and suggested he might need to talk to someone. “I was told to suck it up and drive on,” he said. “I sucked it up.”

Ethan McCord

When he returned stateside and started drinking too much, he pursued civilian counseling. “My unit degraded me for seeking mental health,” he recalled.

But when he redeployed, he wasn’t the only one being treated for PTSD, he told Antiwar.com. Out of 40, three were “heavily medicated” he recalled. Of those who had been deployed together before, “I think everyone had some form of PTSD.”

Wagner, now 27, finally applied for VA health benefits to address her PTSD after the second deployment. There is no mistaking her resolve when she says her fellow vets must act decisively to end the cycle – starting with the practice sending broken men and women back into battle.

“I think there needs to be a way to say, no, they can’t take it anymore.”

Veterans as the Spear Point

Vets like these, who turned against the war after they got home, have risked alienation of friends and family to publicly oppose the pro-war orthodoxy and the military for which they once pledged their lives. They really are the hope of today’s antiwar movement. They smash the caricatures created by the mainstream media of Vietnam-era war protesters, and they have the advantage of experience and of numbers – there are already some 1.25 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans today.They tend to be non-political, driven more by their mistrust of the state than advancing a Democratic or Republican agenda, making them attractive to activists on both sides.

“There is a whole lot of us,” said McCord, who when he left the military, eventually connected with other vets at IVAW, or as he puts it, “a group of comrades who felt the same way I did, who thought the war was wrong, immoral and illegal.”

“It’s just the mainstream media wants nothing to do with us.”

That’s not surprising, considering that nothing trumps the media’s allegiance to the establishment, not even the sanctified veteran. But more and more, veterans are seeking other outlets than rallies and marches to vent. They are going into schools and on college campuses, and alternative online media like You Tube, to get their message out.

In fact, there seems to be a growing number of vets coming at their experience from a libertarian perspective, appealing to audiences often ignored by the antiwar movement. These vets are liberty minded, and can speak quite authoritatively about the cost of war – to the national treasury, and to individual rights and freedoms. Vets like Joey Coon, who now directs student programs at Cato, or Peter Neiger, who works for the national Students for Liberty, or Daniel Lakemacher, who says he read Ayn Rand when he was a medic at Guantanamo Bay and became a conscientious objector.

Veteran Daniel Lakemacher, left, with student Kevin Patrick Kelly at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Students for Liberty Conference

“I know a lot of veterans who are libertarians and didn’t know it until they got involved in one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world” – the U.S. military, said Coon, who spoke with Antiwar.com at the mid-Atlantic regional Students for Liberty conference in Philadelphia on Saturday. Turns out there were a few recent veterans there. They didn’t need to be told the war must end – they were there in part to convince the student attendees that ending it was as big an issue – even bigger – as ending the Fed, Obama Care and the scourge of government expansion in Washington.

“Just being a veteran shuts people up” and makes them listen, said Neiger, who “started to question” the war when he got home from Iraq. He became a big fan of Ron Paul. Now “I do my best to dissuade” people from joining the military, he added, noting that his own brother is on a fourth deployment.

The problem is getting past the apathy, which seems to be problem just about everywhere. “Many of my friends outside the movement could care less,” said Saria T. Sheikh, a college graduate who now works for the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. “We are so far removed.”

Removed, maybe, but not unreachable. Here are veterans who put it all on the line to bring credibility to a movement that seems forever struggling against the tide of media bias and the military’s massive “strategic communications” machine (which, by the way, spends over a billion each year on domestic public relations and recruitment).

Paradoxically, these ex-soldiers are the best weapons we’ve got.

“[They'll] call me a traitor or whatever,” said Matt Southworth, another IVAW member. “I’m not speaking out because I am un-American. I speak out because I love my country. I just know we can do better.”

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos