Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I'm so far from expert on the subject that I probably ought not bring it up. But I read this article this morning, about a four-star general revealing his psychological difficulties on returning home from Iraq (to a base right down the road from here). Despite increased awareness of the problem, it's my impression that there remains, in the military, denial at best and denigration at worst, aimed at those who suffer combat stress. So I admire the guy for putting it out there. As far as I know, he's the first flag officer to do so.
I'm certain there's a broad spectrum, and the extremity of one's experience must be the biggest factor; but there's preparation, support, and maybe internal mechanisms for coping, all of which affect the ultimate outcome. That there should be residual mental effects of spending time at war ought not to be surprising. In fact, I'd say it ought to be assumed in all cases. We ask people -- especially the young and less-than-fully educated -- for a year or so to abandon civilization, to learn to kill, to accept "collateral" casualties, to live in constant touch with death and the possibility of death; and then we expect them to return home and resume normality like putting on a pair of pants.
In Vietnam, I had it relatively good. I never held a rifle (when I flew, I had a pistol in my survival vest, along with a silk cloth printed in several languages with a guarantee of reward in return for help, and a rubber-sheathed hacksaw, suitable for hiding where the sun don't shine), always slept in a bed, ate warm food. Dubbed -- for cause -- "Rocket City", Da Nang Air Base was a constant target of rocket attacks. They rained in more nights than not, and sometimes during daytime. I lived in "Gunfighter Village," home of all the pilots, right alongside the flight line, which was a prime target. On the other hand, the rockets were aimed mostly by leaning them onto a tripod of dirt and crossed bamboo and fired off in our general direction. (Symbolic of the insanity of the whole war, the rockets were often set up in "friendly villages," which, by definition, meant GIs couldn't do anything to take them down without permission from the village chief, who'd be killed if he gave it. In the daily security briefings we officers received, we'd be told where they were coming from and how many to expect.)
In they came, regularly. Far enough away, the sound was a whump, often associated with a physical (real, or imagined?) sensation in the torso, as if from a subwoofer at a rock concert. They'd come in groups, "walking" closer, and as they did, the thump would evolve into a crash.
It was a big base. The odds for a given individual were pretty good, and that was consoling. My number came uppish once, when my barracks was hit. With only minimal injuries, I tended to others -- one with part of his shoulder blown away, into the hole of which I stuffed a tee shirt -- before getting attention myself. Being the only doc living out there with the pilots -- the others were together in the "medical hootch," a jeep or ambulance ride away -- it fell on me with every attack to don a helmet and a flack vest and run to the clinic while Cobra helicopters thwacked the air overhead and fired their gatling guns into the jungle at 6- or 700 rounds per minute, tracers lighting the night. Trotting awkwardly, trying to be low to the ground, it was too surreal to be entirely scary. I never could quite believe it was me.
Here's my point: as comfortable as my circumstances were, as different from the experience of the guys out there in the jungle, sleeping in muck, killing and being killed, it had an effect on me. I still hate the sound of helicopters; every time I hear a military jet (a Navy air base is not far from here) it reminds me of the ambient sounds of Da Nang. As does a certain kind of siren, sounding like the rocket warnings we'd hear a few seconds before the first one hit. In my case, that's about it: no nightmares, no (increase in my usual) depression, no difficulty returning to normal life when I got home. Just an occasional memory, triggered by particularly disliked sounds.
But neither was it entirely negligible. In me: educated, self-aware, well-supported, minimally exposed.
Money is tight, and will be tighter. I'd hope Barack Obama has the guts to take on military spending (Item one: the missile defense shield! Then maybe a few overseas bases). But one thing that must not be cut -- in fact ought to receive more money -- is care of vets coming home. This other report from today's news shows how, for the outgoing administration, "support our troops" has been a load of horse shit.
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