Are we prepared for our soldiers’ return?
If the humanity of a nation can be measured by the way it looks after its soldiers returning from war, then the United States has been found seriously wanting.
With a military tradition that stretches back to the Civil War, it beggars belief that after each conflict, lessons have to be relearned about the mental trauma of war – not only how it affects soldiers and their families, but society as a whole.
In 2007, I travelled to the US to report for SBS television show Dateline on America’s forgotten soldiers – men and women deeply troubled by post-traumatic stress who were slipping through the cracks of a bureaucracy failing to provide the support they needed to adjust to life away from the battlefield.
I was confronted by one heart wrenching story after another, of soldiers who’d lost their way, tortured souls who notwithstanding the often heroic efforts of their desperate families, had ultimately taken their own lives.
I recently returned, five years later, to find that was a steady stream of neglected soldiers has now become a torrent. What were previously regarded as cracks in the system, should now be described as gaping holes.
With America’s planned exit from Afghanistan approaching, up to 50,000 soldiers will soon descend upon society – many of them bearing deep emotional scars. Already, hundreds of US soldiers diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have had their diagnoses overturned, while thousands more worried about the stigma of PTSD are reluctant to seek help. Already, the rate of veteran suicides has reached staggering levels – 6,500 lives lost a year.
That’s more than the number of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This time however, a high price may be exacted from American society for its complacence, and the negligence of its military brass.
By recycling its combat troops over, and over again the US military is pushing the outer limits of human endurance. Already, some special-forces soldiers have served more than a dozen tours of duty, a frequency that is unprecedented in modern warfare. The degree of psychological stress triggered by these multiple-deployments has never been measured, but the impact is now beginning to appear with frightening clarity.
Throughout the US, an alarming pattern is emerging of not only self-harm by veterans, but harm inflicted on others. In Seattle this New Year’s Eve, a disturbed young veteran of the Iraq war exploded in a fit of rage, shooting four people before fleeing into a national park where he shot and killed a park ranger.
In Orange County, California, another troubled veteran of the Iraq war is facing trial over the deaths of four homeless men, as well as a mother and a child. The town of Gilroy in northern California is still coming to terms with the actions of a returned veteran who shot and killed his mother and 11 year old sister before turning the gun on himself, earlier this year. All of these men were reportedly suffering from PTSD.
Of course, it’s all been seen before. When American soldiers returned home from Vietnam a similar dismal picture surfaced. The mental health of returning soldiers was neglected and as growing numbers of them took their own lives, were incarcerated, or fell into a spiral of homelessness and substance abuse, the more vehemently the problem was denied.
Almost 40 years on, it seems not much has changed, and it is inexcusable. Until recently, this hidden epidemic was the US military’s most shameful secret but its existence can no longer be denied, and its Generals are scrambling for cover.
Neglected and ignored, and plagued with inner turmoil, legions of American soldiers have brought the horrors of war back home. With its hard-hearted military commanders looking the other way, American society has been left with the mammoth task of healing its troubled warriors. How many times must history repeat itself before the lessons of war are learned, and remembered.
Last week, Prime Minister Gillard announced plans for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the majority of Australian troops expected to be home by the end of 2013.
While the numbers will not be as great, there is no denying that many Australian soldiers will be dealing with the stress and trauma of what they have experienced in combat. Is Australia prepared for their return?
Nick Lazaredes’ report on the legacy of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among US troops is on Dateline tonight, 9.30pm on SBS ONE
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…