President Barack Obama announced at the White House that it was “time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused” on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly ten thousand troops would remain in Afghanistan until being reduced by half in 2015 and then mostly withdrawn by 2016.
Obama celebrated the “men and women in and out of uniform who serve in Afghanistan today and who have served in the past.” He said as “many of them begin to transition to civilian life, we will keep the promise we make to them and all veterans and make sure they get the care and benefits that they have earned and deserve.” However, a recent report on Fort Hood, the largest Army installation in the country, suggests the government is not only failing to keep a “promise” made to veterans but working against veterans so the government does not have to provide care or benefits to them after the wars.
The report (PDF) is the product of a long term project by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Civilian-Soldier Alliance, and Under the Hood Cafe and Outreach Center, in Killeen, Texas. It includes testimonies from soldiers and veterans who served or lived at Fort Hood for months and in some cases many years. Some have spent time at inpatient psychiatric wards. Others have gone AWOL or become conscientious objectors. “Twenty of the 31 testifiers served multiple deployments” including in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait and in Iraq during the first Gulf War.
“Although each story tells of unique struggles faced by each soldier—arising from their own unique experience in the military,” according to the report’s findings, there is a “striking consistency in the ways these lives have been stressed, strained, and injured by the last decade of military service. Many of these abiding patterns are enshrined in policies determining how the military has responded to—and alternately ignored—the needs of its service-members and their families.”
Since ending the Iraq War, the Defense Department has worked to reduce Army forces from 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000 by 2017. Testimonies of soldiers and veterans indicate that this is being accomplished by disciplining, punishing and discharging soldiers for “infractions that were previously ignored, including behavior resulting from traumatic injuries.”
“Soldiers and veterans testi?ed that commands are determined ‘to get rid of soldiers by any means necessary,'” according to the report. “As swiftly as soldiers were required to re-deploy to combat operations irrespective of their medical needs when forces required, the Army has drawn down its forces by strategically discharging soldiers irrespective of ongoing treatment needs and justi?ed service bene?ts.
“The Army’s use of discharges to skirt its responsibility for providing health care and compensation to suffering soldiers is even more egregious considering many of these same soldiers who served multiple deployments experienced command-overrides of their needs for treatment at the time of re-deployment.”
An African American active duty service member identified as Randal Terrrell served in the military for eleven years. Terrell struggled for two years to get treatment for a hernia after a failed surgery and also suffered from other medical and mental health issues.
“Sometimes I have nightmares,” Terrell described. “I can’t remember all of them, they’re weird. Sometimes I’m being chased. One time I dreamt I got pushed off a tall building. But mostly it’s like somebody’s after me all the time… Sometimes I don’t dream, but I’ll wake up, I’ll pop up out of the bed, already on my feet. I hear noise, I don’t know where it’s coming from, it freaks me out. I don’t know where it’s coming from, I don’t know what’s going on.”
A Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) process is apparently being manipulated to deny soldiers treatment. Terrell said he was “getting more help” before the Board was involved in making decisions.
The report further indicates, “Throughout the drawdown, commanders at Fort Hood have heavily relied on the use of disciplinary measures rather than proper treatment to address behavior commonly understood to result from traumatic injuries—such as substance abuse.”
“At other times, soldiers have been disciplined for issues directly resulting from their treatment—such as oversleeping while on heavy medications used to treat TBIs. In other instances, soldiers were discharged for being overweight—even when they had previously deployed at the same weight. These demonstrations of soldiers’ disposability, as well as a dire lack of effective pathways for redress, have contributed to a climate in which soldiers are afraid to even request care.”
Most active duty soldiers who contributed testimony to this report were afraid if they did not do so anonymously they would be punished.
Soldiers at Fort Hood are often subject to commanders or supervisors, who have no medical or mental health training, yet exercise “total discretion” over their medical and mental health care.
There is a cultural stigma in the military that leads numerous soldiers to “wait to seek care until their injuries or mental health concerns are so severe that they have no other choice.” For soldiers like Curtis Sirmans, this can make it even more difficult to receive care.
The Veterans Affairs Department would not acknowledge his post-traumatic stress disorder because it “was not reflected in his Army medical records.”
“Soldiers enduring this stigma,” the report states, “felt doubly betrayed, for being stigmatized despite their service and sacri?ce, as well as for being denied the care they were promised.” It is worse for women, who face a “sexist workplace culture” that makes it even harder for them to seek care if they are suffering.
Rebekah Lampman was raped and started to abuse alcohol. She entered a program in the military, the Army Substance Abuse Program. She was struggling because her assailant was not moved out of her barracks. She had to deal with a commander who told her at ASAP counseling, “If you had not been drinking that night, you would never have been raped. It is your fault, because you were drinking. You could’ve stopped it, if you had not had alcohol.”
She said she broke down and started crying. It contributed to her blaming herself for what happened for “really long time.”
Obama and other Pentagon officials like to talk about how proud soldiers should be. That alone contributes to trauma.
A white US Army veteran identified as Brandon Harris, who served four deployments, has concluded:
…I think the major cause of the soldier’s trauma is there’s nothing to be proud of. That’s my personal belief. I don’t even think that everybody understands that that’s what it is. But I think, deep down, everyone knows that there is no reason for the Iraq War. I think, deep down there, everybody knows that. It’s impossible for someone to not know that, except for the most—I would start to say the most ignorant, honestly just oblivious person. At this point, you almost have to be willfully ignorant; you have to actually put on blinders to not see it. Afghanistan is still not like that, but I think it gets more like that every day. The more people go to Afghanistan, and especially if they go back again, and see that nothing has changed, then the more it happens. I think it’s like a light switch. If one day you realize, ‘Shit. Everything I went to, everything I did, was bullshit. It didn’t matter,’ then that changes all your experiences…
Anyone deployed to Iraq could look at the country now and see rampant violence and a brutal regime that subjects citizens to torture and arbitrary executions. They could see images of children suffering from birth defects that come from depleted uranium and read stories of families ill from pollution caused by military occupation.
Likewise, veterans of the war in Afghanistan may discover details of indefinite detention of Afghan prisoners subject to torture and killings of civilians. There is certain to be violence between groups in Afghanistan during drawdown and withdrawal and anyone who was deployed may have trouble dealing with their responsibility in perpetuating conflict. So, what can any soldier really be proud of doing?
The way whistleblowers are coming forward to describe how VA offices have conspired to deny soldiers care shows the “promise” is empty. The men and women are used and when they cannot be used any more they are disposable.
Veterans and soldiers in America, along with civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be able to share their experiences and heal. But that would conflict with continued missions in Afghanistan, the perception government wants Americans to have of the Iraq War and reflect poorly on America so that cannot be part of the government’s “promise” to soldiers and veterans.
Graphic by Nicolas Lampert of JustSeeds.org