Sending Broken Men Back Into Afghanistan

Dan Somers in Iraq. The troubled veteran committed suicide in June.
Dan Somers in Iraq. The troubled veteran committed suicide in June.

Most of us cannot understand the pain associated with post-traumatic stress in any visceral way, as described by this recent veteran from the Iraq War:

“My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety.”

Now think of the veteran who wrote these words, 30-year-old Daniel Somers, being sent back into the warzone for another tour of duty.

Clearly a joke, right? Not exactly. In fact, The Washington Post reported last week that soldiers with six and seven tours behind them are still being deployed to Afghanistan, even after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The military knows this, and redeploys them anyway, as Post reporter Kevin Sieff so reasonably explained it. The Army merely tries to cultivate the more "resilient" ones and hopes a field shrink and therapeutic gestures like dogs and hobbies will get them through the year.

Well they won’t ever get to send Somers back because he committed suicide in June (to be fair, he had already been honorably discharged from the Army for his condition), leaving behind a brutally heartrending letter that’s since gone viral across the Internet.

Somers was a young soldier who did two tours and was later diagnosed with a form of Gulf War syndrome, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD. He was one of 22 U.S veterans who kill themselves everyday. Meanwhile, 349 active duty servicemembers took their own lives in 2012 – far more than the total number of combat fatalities in Afghanistan for that year.

But the guys in Sieff’s story wanted to go back, so we guess that’s okay, and the Army was happy enough to have them, even though common sense would dictate that a diagnosis of PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI) from events that happened on multiple previous tours was serious enough to preclude another one.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was once pilloried for saying "you go to war with the Army you have not the Army you want." Well they have a battle-hardened, professional Army now. But it seems that in order to fight the war the Pentagon wanted but should have been ended years ago, the Army is going to grind down every willing soldier it has, whether it breaks them for good or not. The politicians don’t get off the hook of course, this is their war, too, especially the hawkish Democrats under President Obama who said this was "the good war" that required an Iraq-like "Surge" and a counterinsurgency campaign, and supported the deployment of 30,000 more troops in 2009. Little did they know their nation-building fantasies would require sending the same guys overseas seven times or more, and that there would still be 60,000 of them still there in August 2013, getting killed and wounded all the same. Maybe they couldn’t think that far ahead of the 2012 election.

And still the units redeploy – many are going to enjoin the long process of training Afghan troops or breaking things down for withdrawal, which is supposed to occur next year (we still don’t know how many will remain). Their departures are captured mostly by small local news outfits here, here, here, and more here. They go quietly, with little fanfare, so complacent we all are with their coming and going.

Included in their ranks is Staff Sgt. Brian Scott, who suffered a traumatic brain injury with shrapnel embedded in his head from an IED attack on his convoy in 2008. He was featured in a story by the Army press office back in April as he readied to redeploy to Afghanistan in a military police unit. Sgt. Scott has five years to go until his 20-year retirement (complete with genrous benefit package and pension), and says he considers the Army his "family."

But what ultimate price will the country pay for sending mentally unfit and wounded men and women back into a violent landscape full of "triggers?" Brian Scott might retire and live a relatively unscathed existence with his wife, whom he married in a recovery unit in Walter Reed Hospital, but what about all the others? Military marriages and children are both at increased risk after multiple deployments, according to studies, and that weighs heavily on communities, too.

And think of the literal price, when close to a million veterans are already accessing mental health care at local VA hospitals. Taxpayers forked over nearly $3 billion in federal mental health care appropriations in 2012 and it doesn’t seem to matter – hundreds of thousands of vets are still waiting for help. Put it this way: RAND issued a study in 2008 that said 31 percent of returning vets had PTSD and/or TBI. Given we’ve had about 2.6 million servicemembers cycle in and out of the war, that could be some 775,000 vets at risk. Daniel Somers was certainly one of them.

Battle Hardened, but broken too?

While we can appreciate The Washington Post’s attempt to highlight what is clearly not a popular subject with the Pentagon, it’s hard not to think its reporter could have been a little more circumspect with the material he was working with.

Sure, Sieff gets choice, lean quotes from the 10th Mountain Division guys in the field, as well as the team psychologist assigned to them. But obvious questions remain hanging in the air like spent gunpowder: are there no more men or women to fight this war than soldiers who’ve been back and forth six times? How many of these soldiers are currently on medication for pain and chronic sleep issues? Are they self-medicating? Are ‘dozens’ of field psychologists enough for a force of 60,000? What if this last tour breaks them for good, what will the Army do then?

These two paragraphs say it all:

[Staff Sgt. Jerry] Price did not feel pressured to return to Afghanistan. But he knew that if he didn’t, and soldiers from his unit died, he would have a nagging thought: "If I was there, maybe I could have saved them."

Army officials call Price’s attitude an example of the resiliency they are looking for in redeployable troops. He may still be reckoning with the ghosts of past tours, they say, but he knows how to cope. To keep the soldiers mentally healthy, Army psychologists suggest exercise and hobbies for down time. They even provide a therapy dog with which soldiers can decompress.

Sieff’s reporting emboldens the preferred narrative of today’s professional Army, that sending traumatized soldiers back to the warfront is perfectly normal, as long as they are willing and they can "handle it." Funny, just five years ago, top military officers were warning about "incredible stress" and "fatal strain" on the Army over the relentless deployment tempos. At least some of the brass was not yet inured to growing statistical evidence that something was wrong: an Army survey in 2007 found that 27 percent of noncommissioned officers on the second and third tours were already exhibiting signs of PTSD. Now, because a withdrawal supposedly looms and soldiers like Price feel compelled to go, no one seems to care anymore. But as we’ve seen in so many sad and tragic stories already, it’s got to come back home, sometime.

The bottom line is, while seven deployments may have been quite normal for the Roman republican army in say, 45 B.C, it is unprecedented in American modern history. We are entering serious uncharted territory.

Did Four-Tour Bales ‘Snap’?

Robert Bales was convicted of slaying 16 Afghans in cold blood
Robert Bales was convicted of slaying 16 Afghans in cold blood

Take the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is coming "home" to an all-taxpayer –expense-paid jail cell for the rest his life, without parole. He leaves a wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves with no Army benefits and by all accounts, a lot of debt. Worse, there are 16 people buried in the ground in Afghanistan, nine of them children, because he supposedly "snapped" during his third combat tour overseas.

Bales hailed from Fort Lewis-McChord, which is the largest installation on the west coast and has been known as the most troubled base in the nation, mostly because of the mental health demand and violent crime among the troops stationed there. Military advocates have long blamed the high redeployment rate. From The Washington Post, writing after what had become known as Bales’ "Kandahar Massacre":

… thousands of service members from here have been deployed, often repeatedly, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences of those tours are being felt both on distant battlefields and in the communities that surround the base, according to activists who work with veterans.

Fort Lewis-McChord was the home of the now infamous "kill team" convicted of slaying Afghan civilians for fun, and of several gruesome murders and domestic assaults, including two cases of small children of soldiers being waterboarded for bad behavior.

As for Bales, he says he barely remembers the lone pre-dawn attack on March 11, 2012, when he stormed into bedrooms killing children and adults, some in the head and face at close range, moving from room to room before going back, reloading and out to kill more. He burned some of the bodies afterward.

No one knows – perhaps not even Bales – why he did it. His lawyers described a man suffering mentally from years of deployments. One letter from a fellow soldier in support of Bales said a decade seeing his men killed and maimed had left Bales in a darkness that “swallowed him whole.” He had a hard time adjusting at home in between times, and was apparently in serious debt. Witnesses said he drank a lot and was recently beefing up on illegal steroids. He was guzzling liquor and snorting valium right before the attack.

We may never know: many say combat-related PTSD should not be the first excuse for a soldier or veteran’s bad behavior, or even their suicide. Recently published results from the Millennium Cohort Study, an ongoing survey of Iraq and Afghanistan-era military personnel by the Department of Defense, suggests that underlying mental health and addiction issues have more to do with soldier suicides than combat exposure. In other words, people who are already mentally vulnerable when they enter the military are more likely to be suicidal. Taking that point further, soldiers who commit violent acts of crime during and after the war were predisposed to that behavior before combat, not because of it.

That debate will roil for some time. The military doesn’t want war to be blamed for society’s ills and would rather point the finger at society itself. But displacement won’t make it go away. As Colorado-based psychologist David Rudd tells CNN, the military needs to do better screening of these "predisposed" recruits because if boot camp doesn’t trigger the worst, combat certainly will. From Rudd:

"…for those who suffer from a mental disorder, these repeated high-stress situations and exposures to the intensity of combat cause psychological injuries. And while we can reduce suicide rates, there will always be vulnerable people, and I think we have a hard time accepting that.”

We know there are plenty of "predisposed" individuals who either fought and left the military or are still there because in 2004, United Press International got its hands on an internal study that found "variability in predeployment screening guidelines for mental health issues may have resulted in some soldiers with mental health diagnoses being inappropriately deployed.” This story broke amid a spike of soldier-suicides overseas. Two years later, a Hartford Courant investigation found that only 6.5 percent of the recruits who were flagged for mental health issues were actually referred to counseling before deployment. "It’s a policy that can do a lot of damage over time," veteran advocate Steve Robinson told the paper.

This takes us right back to the beginning – back to the Washington Post story of our 10th Mountain Division six-tour hardcores, who are now "back in one of the most dangerous stretches of Afghanistan." Sure this is August 2013, not 2006, when every warm body possible was needed for the fight. The bar was lower back then, and the military freely admits it. Today the deployment tempo has slowed, and our hardcores are the best trained, most capable and seemingly most resilient.

Or are they? Might the seventh – or eighth – deployment be the final trigger? I think it’s safe to say our 12-year counterinsurgency/national building strategy was never worth the pain of finding out. One doesn’t have to support war or the troops to care, because it will affect us all in some way, eventually.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.