News about a record number of suicides within the US Army, 160 soldiers on active duty who took their own lives in 2009, sparked a debate in the US media in late 2009 that didn't last very long. The shame, the horror and if nothing else, the war fatigue is at least strong enough now to draw the attention of the Pentagon. Their Top Brass is striving for change and is trying to redefine the "American Warrior." Depression and other mental illnesses are to receive the same recognition and medical treatment in the future, as are physical injuries related to the war effort. Many returnees to the US are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Their condition will now be investigated more thoroughly and there is hope that taboos surrounding mental illness can be overcome. More and more veterans from different eras speak up.
This is their story.
Sgt. Loyd Sawyer is searching for words when he explains why he joined the US Army in 2005. He wanted to "do his part," for the country, in what he called "the cause in Iraq." The horror makes him falter. Mighty are the memories of war he is coping with these days.
Upon joining the Army Loyd, the general manager of a funeral home in rural Virginia, was assigned to a mortuary of the U.S. Air Force in the quiet town of Dover, Delaware. After his basic training in the U.S., he was transferred to the military base at Balad, north of Baghdad in Iraq.
"It was my job to prepare the bodies of my deceased comrades for their return to the US," Sawyer explains. He picked them up from the military hospital and drove them to the morgue. Upon a search of their pockets, he found letters, lucky charms, and very personal items. The dead are then flown back home in body bags. On his days off he helped to embalm the bodies. Sawyer was responsible for identifying individual body parts. The arm of a Marine soldier, recognizable by his "Semper Fidelis" tattoo, the Marines motto of unconditional loyalty till death. A foot. Facial skin he has to stretch out on a table.
Once, after a plane crash, he spent 82 hours in order to line up the bodies, "...and sometimes the remains are so hot that they melted the body bag." When Sawyer speaks, he sounds as if he is unable to believe or fathom the things he had to experience.
Back in Iraq, Sawyer was not allowed to share his experiences outside the base; instead, he started drinking excessively. After seven months, a much different Loyd Sawyer returned to the US. One who stays up all night because in his sleep he meets the dead. One who can't control his aggression and who is estranged from his wife and two sons. The smell of diesel fumes in the streets of his home town, or the scent of blood in the meat department of the supermarket pull him instantly back into war. He is not looking for company and avoids people whenever he can. "My wife realized that something was wrong with me. She wanted me to get help, but I hesitated. I was afraid that would be the end of my military career."
Shame about the fact that after multiple military deployments something was not right made soldiers fall silent for the longest time, or worse, drove them into death. More than 2100 soldiers have committed suicide since 2001, almost twice as many as have been killed in Afghanistan so far. It is nearly half as many casualties the war in Iraq has produced to this day.
PTSD is as old as war itself. The American psychologist Jonathan Shay describes in his book Achilles in Vietnam - War Trauma and Change of Personality the parallels between Vietnam veterans and the Greek warrior Achilles who felt numb and helpless after the war experience. He refused to eat anything and was tortured by a furious desire for revenge and suicidal thoughts. Ultimately Achilles mutilated an opponent beyond recognition and showed, as Shay explains, all symptoms of PTSD. During the American Civil War the phenomenon was called "Soldier's Heart." After the First World War the men were "Shell Shocked", and as a result of the Second World War they showed "War Fatigue." Thousands of US soldiers were showing "Combat Stress" or suffered from "Post Vietnam Syndrome." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan produce more numbers: According to a study of the US Department of Veteran Affairs, since September 2009, 106,726 soldiers who quit their service after deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan have been diagnosed with severe mental disorders so far.
Twenty-two percent have been found to suffer from PTSD, but the estimated number of unreported cases is most likely higher. However, the number doesn't include soldiers who are still serving or seek help outside the Veterans organizations of the US Government. Many veterans remain silent because they don't want to ruin their chances of obtaining a civil job after being discharged. Soldiers who are still in service are afraid of a fatal stigma, because inside the Army the slogan "A real man survives anything" persists. The numbers, according to a study by the U.S. Army, prove otherwise: Of 1000 soldiers who committed suicide from 2003 to 2009 the majority is male, white, married, aged 21 to 25 years and had at least one Army deployment.
The fatal combination of the image that a soldier who must overcome the cruelties of war, without psychological assistance and strong emotions of patriotism lead to Sgt. Coleman Bean's death. After returning from his first tour in the fall of 2005, he displayed symptoms of PTSD: "He went into the custody of the Government Office for veterans where he was diagnosed with PTSD, but he did not treat it, because he was still in the military and the boys were supposed to go on further missions," Coleman's father, Greg, a retired journalist, says. He speaks of the panic attacks, which tormented the young man repeatedly, ever since he had seen women and children burning to death in a bus in Iraq. Coleman also started binge drinking after his return from the first tour. He became aggressive and sought fights in local bars, and eventually was imprisoned for drunk driving. His patriotism, however, remained undiminished. "Coleman believed in serving his country unconditionally. This is a tradition within the Bean family. He saw an opportunity to form and pursue a career. He was also looking for direction in his life and wanted discipline. On September 6 of 2001 Coleman Bean joined the Army. The events occurring five days later, the destruction of the World Trade towers, "Changed everything for him," his father says. "From that time on he was very convinced of his purpose. He completed his basic training and was among the first soldiers in Iraq."
In the summer of 2007, the army deployed him a second time. Coleman traveled once again to Iraq. His mother advised him, "We could flee across the border." Strongly believing in the honor code of the U.S. Army, Coleman refused the easy way out. His father Greg explains, "He said shortly before his second deployment, if I do not go, they send somebody else." Softly the father adds, "But mentally he was no warrior at all. "Coleman also survived his second deployment in Iraq, and reached his hometown Brunswick, New Jersey in the spring of 2007. Only a few months later, he fell into his old habits. "He didn't sleep, was unable to focus on his goals, experienced panic attacks and could not escape from the problems caused by alcohol abuse."
On the morning of September 6, 2008 after a car accident and another arrest for driving under the influence, Coleman Bean shot himself in his apartment in South River. He was 25 years old.
Thus Coleman Bean is one of 160 soldiers who took their lives in 2009; that is the highest level since 2003. Only then did the armed forces in general begin to count the suicides. The news rocked the war-weary nation and in military circles, awareness has seemed to develop now that this fact can no longer be trivialized. Better, the Army is frantically looking for solutions.
An incident in early November 2009 started a wider debate about mental health support within the U.S. Army. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who worked as a psychiatrist at Fort Hood with traumatized soldiers, shot 13 people at the army base in Texas. In his case religious zeal and ideological radicalization are joined by his own trauma and the missed opportunity for rehabilitation.
After the publication of suicide statistics in the U.S. Army and the catastrophe at Fort Hood Army officials responded promptly. General Peter Chiarelli, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff announced in late November that it was "absolutely unacceptable" that soldiers were suffering in silence, just out of fear that they would experience the malice of their peers or that their careers would be affected. Chiarelli wants to redefine the "warrior ethos" and give mental health the same importance as physical health, or the ability to shoot with a rifle.
In April of 2009 the Army created a special unit for the early detection of depression and suicide. Enlisted soldiers are now participating in courses to learn what to look for in potentially traumatized classmates and comrades. Their education also teaches how they should deal with the situation. In particular, officers are equally involved, a crucial step that veterans had been calling for.
Hugh Bruce, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, who served in Vietnam is particularly vocal when it comes to soldiers' trauma. Bruce is in his late 60's now; he volunteered for military service at 17. "Patriotism played a role, but mostly I just wanted to get away from my father." He proudly wears the insignia of the Veterans for Peace, an organization that has been engaged with issues of war and peace since 1985. While they are vociferously present at anti war demonstrations, "Demonstrations hardly happen anymore. The anger that people had back in the late 60's, that drove them on the streets, I miss that." If you ask Bruce about his Vietnam experiences, he says, "They were terrible. What do you think?"
He does not go into further detail, but the red veins in his face tell their own story. "When we came back from Vietnam, the majority of the veterans had either alcohol or drug problems. I drank enormous quantities of alcohol and ended up in the emergency room far too often."
The increase in the suicide rate in the U.S. military he explains by repeated deployments of servicemen and women. "Eighteen months was the limit in Vietnam," says Bruce. The serious-faced veteran also complains about the macho culture within the Army and adds, "After World War I soldiers were 'Shell Shocked', now they call it PTSD. The fact is we are not made for war." Bruce is disappointed in President Barack Obama. "Disgusted," he was of the speech that the Nobel Peace Prize winner delivered in early December 2009 at West Point. Obama forcefully declared that "the country's security is at stake." Therefore the U.S. president would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and promised at the same time, to start withdrawal them 18 months later. The first Marines took off to Afghanistan at Christmas. "That was the philosophy of George W. Bush in embellished words of someone who had promised change. It's the same poison!"
Psychologist Mike Rankin served from 1964 to 1969 as a staff physician of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. He then spent three decades working with Vietnam veterans. After his return he had learned how poorly the psychological support for returnees had been organized by the U.S. government. In his view, the situation has improved only marginally, "The U.S. Army to this day is still not able to provide adequate service for veterans. The same was true for Vietnam, but at the time we simply ignored the PTSD symptoms." Rankin opposes war strongly, "I am against any form of military intervention, even though I have lost family members in the Holocaust. There are better ways to resolve conflicts."
Barbara Vandalen, chairwoman of the nonprofit organization Give an Hour describes the shortage of psychological staff in the U.S. army as an "acute emergency". After buying a copy of "Nonprofits for Dummies" she started Give an Hour in 2004 and contribute to the solution of the problem by providing free mental health services to vets and their families. The psychologist was highly concerned, "that we are losing an entire generation of young people as had happened in Vietnam". But change doesn't happen over night, she knows, "The US Army is now working very hard to modify their image, but it still requires a massive, cultural shift at the Pentagon. It will take time and intensive education." Vandalen was able to mobilize a total of 4600 psychologists throughout the United States, who freely offer their services.
The Bean family mourn their son. The anniversaries are especially hard, says Greg Bean. The family also receives help from Give an Hour. "I believe that the U.S. military slowly understands the problem and they do the best to help the soldiers," Bean explains. "Only for my boy, it is too late."