“Within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them…Discarded veterans are never a pretty sight. They are troubled and some physically maimed. They often feel betrayed, misunderstood and alone. It is hard to integrate again into peacetime society. Many are shunted aside, left to nuture their resentment and pain.”
- Chris Hedges, from “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.”
As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, expect the same scene to play itself out over and over. Parades welcoming home the troops, signs and cheers from citizens grateful for the sacrifices made. Waves from returning veterans, smiles, and thank yous will be shared. Perhaps a rally or two, hugs and then everyone goes home.
Yet if you look at the statistics, combat veterans have markedly higher divorce rates, suicide rates, incidents of domestic abuse, and depression. Most of this is caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which haunts at least a third of combat veterans. It damages the brain, meaning that it can show itself as a variety of mental disorders from anxiety and stress to even bipolar disorder and other conditions.
There is no way someone like me who has never been in the military can really know what these people go through. We can only imagine what it must be like, as a young man or woman, to enter the service full of enthusiasm to serve ones’ country and protect it from foes, and then be thrown in conditions that nobody can truly be prepared for. Moreover, given multiple deployments, many have to go through this over and over, constantly juxtaposing civilian life with military life.
Not everyone in the military experiences combat the same way. Elite units such as Army Rangers or Navy Seals experience it with more intensity than others. Some units see a lot of combat, for others it’s limited. Some people lose most of their buddies, others only a few. Some people know they’ve killed innocents, usually by mistake, others know they have not. No one leaves unaffected, but most manage to patch things together and go on with life. Some resilient people come out strengthened by the experience, others seek to forget it.
On Thanksgiving it’s normal to thank veterans. Even those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that almost everyone in the military went out of love for the country and its liberties. If the wars were wrong, the blame rests on the politicians, not the soldiers. We assume that the military with its VA hospitals and GI bills takes care of veterans after they come home, integrating them into life. We assume that benefits for veterans are generous.
It’s not that simple. A case here in Farmington of a former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek brings that home. On Saturday November 19th he was shot with deadly force by a member of the Farmington police force. Apparently he had gone to the door of the municipal building (which currently houses the police force) and knocked. When the officer opened it and asked what he wanted a confrontation ensued, with the officer shooting Crowley-Smilek four times.
Crowley-Smilek had been in trouble before, bringing an armed weapon to a University of Maine Farmington basketball game, and allegedly beating up someone outside a bar recently. There have been a few such incidents since he returned from service in Afghanistan. There he had been injured badly and came home with PTSD, taking numerous medications prescribed by the VA. I never met the man, but from all accounts by family and loved ones he knew he had problems and had been trying to deal with them.
He confronted the officer on Saturday with nothing but a kitchen knife, leading many to criticize the officer and wonder why he couldn’t have just shot him in the leg or somehow disabled him. The thing is, a small town cop against an Army Ranger, even one armed with just a kitchen knife, is not a fair fight. I suspect Crowley-Smilek left him with no choice but to shoot. Mostly likely it was the outcome the victim intended.
Studies out there suggest that 40% of returning combat vets seek aid for mental health issues. Many with problems do not seek aid. When we send troops to war we debate a lot of things. We ask if the war is just, discuss the cost, and of course worry about how many soldiers will be killed. We don’t usually think of going to war in terms of dooming many young people to a life time of mental distress. We also tend to ignore veterans after the war ends, except on particular holidays.
For instance, Congress finally passed a plan to help jobless vets. The sad fact is that in this economy coming home from military combat often means leaving a job for unemployment. Yet even that bill took a long time to pass because of political infighting — Republicans wanted to connect it with other jobs bills before they’d give in on this one. Finally, realizing this would be an embarrassment, they joined for unanimous approval.
Yet overall we do a poor job of taking care of veterans after they return. How many suicides, divorces, addictions and messed up lives does it take until people see that ‘support the troops’ does not mean ‘support the war’ or ‘come out and cheer at parades?’
We are entering a new post-war era, as Iraq and Afghanistan both wind down. Hundreds of thousands of vets involved in those wars will be coming home to a society that can either welcome them and give them the care and help reintegrating that they deserve, or cheer and say thanks and then discard them. I did not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of what this would mean for many American military families. Our leaders chose to get into those wars and send young men and women over to often experience events that they can never truly escape.
To be sure, the majority can handle it, but there is a large minority who cannot, and that causes considerable suffering. As a society if we can choose to pay the terrible costs of going to war we have to be prepared to pay whatever the cost is to take care of those who return scarred both physically and psychologically. That is the true way to be thankful for their service and to support the troops.