By Cal Colgan | firstname.lastname@example.org
My cousin — let’s call him “Bill” — is a piece of garbage. It’s hard to be the “black sheep” in a family of eccentrics, but Bill accomplished that feat. After years of drug abuse and a caustic marriage with his high school sweetheart that ended in divorce, Bill left his ex-wife and children and signed up for the Army National Guard.
He thought going to Iraq would transform him into a decent human being, but he ended up in Fallujah in 2007, when it was largely held by the Iraqi insurgency.
I’ve lost touch with Bill over the years. The last I heard, he was serving in Afghanistan.
But I don’t fear Bill’s death by a Taliban fighter’s bullet. I’m afraid of what happens to him and his family when he comes home.
Our military programs people like Bill to be killing machines — to defy the rules of civility, because they will receive no such kindess when faced by a Taliban militant with a rocket launcher.
But when soldiers, like my cousin, who were in active combat come back to the States, they are expected to leave a world with the constant fear of death for their hometowns. They come back to “polite society,” where the very actions they are trained to take could land them in prison.
And for many soldiers, the transition isn’t easy.
One in ten Iraq war veterans will develop serious mental health problems after they leave the battlefield, according to a recent study in the June issue of the “Archives of General Psychiatry.” The study, conducted at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., found that the problems worsen a year after the soldiers leave combat.
What’s especially troubling about Walter Reed’s findings is that of the 23 to 31 percent of soldiers who reported that they had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, half of them had drinking problems and violent behavior, ranging from provoking fights to slamming doors or punching walls.
This study raises a further question: how many of these soldiers with PTSD came from abusive families? Bill, for example, had an alcoholic father who frequently beat both him and his older brother. If people like my cousin join the military to escape such abuse, they might find that this aggression overtakes them as a way of coping with the violence of war.
Thus, the victims of abuse and the supposed “protectors” of their homeland become abusers themselves.
Even if our friends and family members coming back from their tours of duty do not become physically abusive, they can still demonstrate self-destructive behavior.
Take Jamie Keyes’ son, Nathan.
Keyes, an Atlanta resident, said she and her family had to bear the brunt of her son’s mental breakdown. When the Iraq war vet returned from his deployment, Keyes said he received very little support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although Nathan sought psychological treatment from the VA almost immediately after he returned to his Georgia home, the therapists did little to help him with his PTSD.
“He probably had a couple appointments with [a therapist] before an attempted suicide,” Keyes said.
Nathan’s severe alcoholism and aggressive behavior got him kicked out of his mother’s house, and he tried to seek treatment in the Jacksonville area of North East Florida.
When Nathan was driving down the Florida highway one day, he accidentally cut off another driver. The man was so outraged that he chased Nathan down the road.
“[Nathan] felt threatened by the guy chasing him and he responded by firing warning shots [with his gun], which was what he was trained to do,” Keyes said.
Unfortunately for Nathan, the rules of combat don’t apply to civilian life. He spent a year in the St. Johns County jail before being sentenced to a year in the state prison. He is now in a work-release program in Jacksonville.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Nathan’s story is that he is not an anomaly. Many combat veterans coming back to their families simply do not adjust back to the normal tranquil life to which so many middle-classed Americans are accustomed.
Scott Camil was one of the lucky ones.
When Camil came back from the Vietnam War, he served in the Marines for an additional two years. He said the extra years of service helped him transition back into civilian life. But many of Camil’s friends went directly from the Marines to their hometowns. Back then, post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the psychological industry, so Camil and his friends had to form self-help groups.
But although there are treatment options available for today’s Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, Camil said the long waiting lines at the VA can cause their depression to take control of them. Camil said that some soldiers coming back from the Middle East with PTSD have committed suicide because the waiting period was too long.
Indeed, according to the Discovery News article on the Water Reed study, the VA reported that it has a backlog of more than 175,000 disability claims, causing vets to wait an average of 110 days before the department can even process their claims.
If my cousin Bill comes back from Afghanistan with PTSD, how long would he wait before he reverted back to his life of alcohol and drugs? The turmoil that his new wife and four children would suffer might be akin to Nathan Keyes’ case.
Camil, who is the founder and coordinator for the Gainesville, Fla. chapter of Veterans For Peace, has campaigned for the rights of veterans almost four decades. Above all, he said that the reason why so many vets have mental issues is because they are taught killing as a means of conflict resolution.
“All war really is is organized murder,” said Camil, “and it’s made up of behaviors that are unlawful and unacceptable [outside of] war.”
As long as we use the organized murder of war as a means to resolve our nation’s problems, more of our friends and family members will come back with severe mental issues. As much of a jerk as my cousin is, we can’t blame Bill for the brutish behavior he might show after he leaves Afghanistan. He is merely the product of a killing machine—one that plants the seed of animal behavior in our loved ones.
And once that weed is planted, it’s hard to kill.
2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Gold Award for Commentary