US Ill-Equipped to Deal With Wave of Troubled Vets

Staff Sergeant Don Hanks had served 15 years in the U.S. Army before he spent a year running patrols in the heart of Iraq’s Sunni triangle. He said he returned from the conflict a changed man.

"I lost friends over there and some of those friends I’d had for my whole frickin’ adult life," he told IPS. "You’re over there at their houses and barbequing with their kids and you get to know them and their families and then one day they’re not there anymore because of something really bad."

"It’s just a really sad experience," he said.

Hanks developed post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that can emerge after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. A person experiencing PTSD can lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.

"You start to forget shit," he said. "I can’t tell you how many times I’d get up in my house and go into my kitchen or my bathroom or my bedroom and just forget why I was in the room."

"It started to affect my interpersonal relationships," he added, "and when that happened, I bottled it up. I didn’t go talk to somebody when I should have because of the stigma, because I didn’t want them to know I was having problems because that is not the sign of a top performer. That is not the sign of a good soldier."

Hanks said he became completely non-functional. He stopped going to the mall and other crowded places. He started smoking marijuana to cope with his mental problems. When he was hospitalized at a military mental institution, he failed a drug test.

Then the military expelled Don Hanks, a move he did not fight because the alternative was another tour in Iraq. Formerly stationed in Fort Lewis outside Seattle, he’s just landed a job washing windows in the city’s downtown skyscrapers.

"We fought Saddam’s regime and we conquered it, but that’s not it now," he told IPS.

"You can see it," he said. "You can see it in the interpreters and in the Iraqi Army units that we were training. I don’t know. I saw it as a senseless and tragic waste of life."

Don Hanks’ story is hardly unique.

"A lot of guys really want to get out," Garrett Rappenhagen, chairman of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told IPS. "And the military, rather than take the responsibility that this guy has actually just fought in a war and is possibly damaged from that, is just allowing these guys and almost helping these guys get these discharges just to get out of the military and get rid of a problem."

The problem, says Rappenhagen, is that soldiers thrown out of the military for drug and alcohol abuse are often not eligible for veteran’s benefits because they’ve gotten a less than honorable discharge. That extends not only to health care, but also to the housing and college education programs usually available to returning servicemen.

The results, Rappenhagen says, are often tragic.

"In Colorado, there was a woman that I had for Vets4Vets counseling sessions named Jessica Rich," he said.

A 24-year-old Army reservist, Rich served a tour in Iraq and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2004. She received a medical discharge in 2005.

Her friend, Makayla Crenshaw, who served with Rich in Iraq, told the Denver Post that Rich couldn’t shake some of the memories from war, including witnessing the suicide of a fellow soldier in Iraq.

"She was having nightmares still, up until this point – flashbacks and anxiety and everything, the whole bucket of fun," Crenshaw said. "She said it was really hard to get over it because she couldn’t get any help from anybody."

Rich died last Thursday after a high-speed auto accident on a Colorado interstate highway. The coroner’s report put her blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit.

"She got tanked up and was speeding down the wrong side of the interstate with no seatbelt and slammed head-on into a Suburban (SUV) that killed her instantly," Rappenhagen explained. "So, these things are happening and there’s not a lot being done to treat these soldiers. It’s common. Really common."

A recent investigation by McClatchy Newspapers, which analyzed 200 million records released under the federal Freedom of Information Act and interviewed numerous mental health experts and returning veterans, found that nearly 100 Veterans Administration clinics provided virtually no mental health care in 2005.

It is uncertain exactly what proportion of soldiers currently suffer from PTSD, but a 2004 study by the Army on the mental health of troops who fought in Iraq – the first of its kind – found that about one in eight reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ironically, at the same time soldiers are leaving the military with combat-related substance abuse problems, more and more convicted felons are being recruited into the armed services.

On Wednesday, the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara released a new study finding that the number of felons admitted into the military had doubled since 2003.

"We found that over the last three years the military has allowed about 106,000 people to enter with troubled histories, including convictions for felonies and serious misdemeanors as well as illegal drug abuse," the center’s director, Aaron Belkin, told IPS.

Belkin added that a new study commissioned by the center also concludes the military does not have any special programs to help convicted felons adjust to military life.

This year, an estimated one in five soldiers being recruited to fight in Iraq has received some kind of waiver in order to enter the service. Those kinds of waivers will likely become even more common as President George W. Bush moves ahead with his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

(Inter Press Service)