It's well known that soldiers who saw active combat suffer much higher levels of PTSD and associated mental health problems when they return home. Now a local paper, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reports
Since their return late in 2007, eight infantry soldiers have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter. Another two soldiers from the brigade were arrested and accused of murder and attempted murder after the first tour. Others have committed other violent crimes. Others have committed suicide.
All the soldiers belonged to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, part of Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. The 500-soldier infantry battalion nicknamed itself the "Lethal Warriors."
Almost all those soldiers were kids, too young to buy a beer, when they volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Almost none had serious criminal backgrounds. Many were awarded medals for good conduct.
The people turning their backs on universal health care coverage need to realize they are turning their backs on these people as well -- and putting everyone at risk.
The Gazette article makes this connection explicitly:
Many of the soldiers behind bars and their family members say the violence at home is a consequence of the violence in Iraq. They came home angry, confused, paranoid and depressed. They had trouble getting effective mental heath care. Most buried their symptoms in drugs and alcohol until they exploded.
The details of the murders are horrific. Although it is shocking, I cannot say it is surprising. In some ways, that is the most horrifying part of this tragedy of a death foretold. For years, people have been reporting on the problem of profoundly disturbed and untreated soldiers returning from deployments in Iraq.
The soldiers seemed to be suffering classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: explosions of anger, suicidal and homicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. The Army was responding, for the most part, with disciplinary action rather than treatment, evincing little concern for possible underlying problems. The soldiers self-medicated further. Predictable outcomes followed.
Unfortunately, there is a well-established body of literature exploring the impact of mass murder on the murderers. It is hard -- maybe impossible -- to have any sympathy for the men of the Nazi Einzatsgruppen. These were the special units that fanned out across the Eastern Front in the Summer of 1941 as the German army invaded Ukraine, Belorus, Latvia, Estonia on the road to Russia. Their job was simple: mass murder. The most notorious of these was Einzatsgruppen C, responsible for the large scale exterminations at Baba Yar.
One of the direct consequences of this campaign was the Wannsee Conference. This was the meeting where "the final solution" was developed as a systematic program. One reason this meeting was convened in January, 1942 was the growing realization that the policy used in places like Ukraine was having a devastating effect -- on the men who were carrying out the mass murders. They were turning into psychopaths. Forget why the violence was occuring. The important point is the scope of it and the impact on the individuals carrying it out.
"Toward the end, we were so mad and tired and frustrated," Freeman said. "You came too close, we lit you up. You didn’t stop, we ran your car over with the Bradley."
If soldiers were hit by an IED, they would aim machine guns and grenade launchers in every direction, Marquez said, and "just light the whole area up. If anyone was around, that was their fault. We smoked ’em."
Other soldiers said they shot random cars, killing civilians.
"It was just a free-for-all," said Marcus Mifflin, 21, a friend of Eastridge who was medically discharged with PTSD after the tour. "You didn’t get blamed unless someone could be absolutely sure you did something wrong. And that was hard. So things happened. Taxi drivers got shot for no reason. Guys got kidnapped and taken to the bridge and interrogated and dropped off."
Before you reach for the Godwin button... I'm not comparing our troops to Nazis. What I'm saying is that when you have a breakdown in discipline that enables men in combat to commit wanton violence, don't be surprised if they lose their minds. Shooting defenseless men, women and children at close range leaves a mark, even on the most callous person.
After coming home from Iraq, 21-year-old medic Bruce Bastien was driving with his Army buddy Louis Bressler, 24, when they spotted a woman walking to work on a Colorado Springs street.
Bressler swerved and hit the woman with the car, according to police, then Bastien jumped out and stabbed her over and over.
It was October 2007. A fellow soldier, Kenneth Eastridge, 24, watched it all from the passenger seat.
At that moment, he said, it was clear that however messed up some of the soldiers in the unit had been after their first Iraq deployment, it was about to get much worse.
"I have no problem with killing," said Eastridge, a two-tour infantryman with almost 80 confirmed kills. "But I won’t just murder someone for no reason. He had gone crazy."
As it turns out, there is a pattern developing. When the new commanding officer at Fort Carson, Major General Mark Graham, started examining the cases, he found there were often smalls trouble first, and the problems grew until they exploded.
Most of the soldiers now behind bars back up Graham’s theory of the crescendo.
Before Bastien stabbed a woman in 2007, he was arrested three times on suspicion of beating his wife and burning her with cigarettes.
Before Bressler shot two soldiers in Colorado Springs in 2007, Eastridge said, he assaulted his commanding officer and tried to kill himself.
Before Jomar Falu-Vives, 23, allegedly gunned down three people in Colorado Springs in two drive-by shootings in 2008, his wife said she called his sergeants to warn he was liable to "take someone’s life."
Before John Needham, 25, allegedly beat a woman to death in 2008, his father said, he tried repeatedly to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Major General Graham is all too familiar with the consequences of this problem. One of his son's was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq a year after his other son committed suicide while training to be an officer. No surprise Graham focused on mental health after taking command of Fort Carson.
Under his watch, Fort Carson more than doubled the number of mental health counselors. A new Army program will soon give each brigade a "master resiliency trainer" to strengthen troops’ psychological fitness the way drill sergeants strengthen their muscles. A special unit has been created to track soldiers who are too physically or psychologically wounded to stay with their battalions. Soldiers visiting a doctor at Fort Carson for even a sprained ankle are now screened for symptoms of PTSD and depression. And perhaps most important, Graham said, in the Army, where mental illness has long been taboo, commanders at Fort Carson are being trained to tell soldiers it is OK to seek treatment.
Changing a culture is hard. The cultural taboo against seeking help is deep and wide-spread in the Army. Simply raising the possibility that you might need counseling is enough to derail a career. This brings us to the heart of the problem. For a long time, the Army ignored the problem and handled the families of the disturbed soldiers in a surprisingly callous way. In February, Salon reported shocking examples, including this one:
Last November, as detailed today in the first of Salon's multi-part series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, officers provided paint for a mother to paint over her son's suicide note, which he had scrawled on a barracks wall.
So much for "we take care of our own." The consequence of this sort of response is the problem has grown In 2002, it was estimated that about 6% of the returning vets are being treated at VA hospitals for emotional disorders. By 2007 that number had almost tripled, but there was still resistance form the Army. Some argued that PTSD was a myth and wildly overdiagnosed. Since 2007, the number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan being treated at VA hospitals for serious emotional disorders has has doubled again.
This is not the first time anyone has raised this alarm. In 2004, Dan Baum wrote a very disturbing piece in the New Yorker that focused on the problems at Fort Benning. The subheading summed up the story quite well. I've never forgotten it, which is how I found it so quickly now:
We train our soldiers to kill for us. Afterward, they’re on their own.
Of course, that's just a journalist's opinion. But it is hard to dismiss the same message from one of the soldiers in prison for murder in Fort Carson:
"The Army trains you to be this way. In bayonet training, the sergeant would yell, ‘What makes the grass grow?’ and we would yell, ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ as we stabbed the dummy. The Army pounds it into your head until it is instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody. And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off. ... If they don’t figure out how to take care of the soldiers they trained to kill, this is just going to keep happening."
Examining the problems five years ago, Baum made a strong argument for increasing the mental health services available to veterans, noting:
Veterans since the American Revolution have complained that the government doesn’t do enough for them. Given what combat does to soldiers, it’s hard to imagine any amount of services being "enough."
The bottom line: When we talk about universal health care insurance, we can't lose sight of the need for mental health coverage. The VA can't handle the problems we will be facing in the future. If we don't take care of them, who will?
The people who want to turn their back on universal health care coverage need to know they are turning their backs on these men and women as well -- and putting everyone at risk. How many more people have to die before this gets the attention it deserves?