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

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31 comments

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    • TChong says:

      03:23pm | 24/04/12

      The humanity of every nation is judged by how it looks after ALL of those in need.

    • Mark says:

      03:30pm | 24/04/12

      “With a military tradition that stretches back to the Civil War”

      Ah….1776, actually. War of Independence. Y’know…George Washington, the forefathers and all that…

    • void says:

      04:08pm | 24/04/12

      Wrong war.  The Civil way was between the American north and south.  Also, wrong president.

    • void says:

      04:17pm | 24/04/12

      Scratch my earlier comment.  Misinterpreted what Mark was referring to.

    • Little Joe says:

      09:01am | 25/04/12

      You could go back to the French and Indian War ...... or further to King Philip’s War.

      You have to wonder what “research” means to some journalists.

    • Jason D says:

      03:46pm | 24/04/12

      wow - you guys are hyper-critical nit picking bitches - isn’t the message important here? So many of the comments on these pages seem to miss the mark and the point completely and are more about ‘scoring points’. Grow up!

    • subotic says:

      04:00pm | 24/04/12

      I don’t want to grow up, thanks very much Jason D.

      My hyper-critical nit picking bitchiness on here helps me to score points and get laid.

      So there…

    • TheOzTrucker says:

      09:18am | 25/04/12

      Yep. It’s even better if you can troll through some forgotten file and dredge up a page that almost supports your argument.

    • Libfail says:

      03:55pm | 24/04/12

      ‘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?’

      and yet when you say that Australian soldiers should not be there in the first place and they should all be brought back home straight away.  There’s always a large number on The Punch claiming to either be current or ex military, going on about how someone who hasnt been in the ADF ‘wouldn’t understand’ and how soldiers apparently ‘want to be there’. 

      You just cant have it both ways.  The best thing we can do to minimise harm isnt increasing veteran payouts etc, its not sending them over there in the first place!!!  The ADF hasnt defended Australia from a direct threat in 65 years. 

      dont send them over there.  problem solved

    • Utopia Boy says:

      04:25pm | 24/04/12

      @Libfail,
      Perhaps what you say is true - we shouldn’t be there. Perhaps.

      How does that help those who ARE there, have been there, and will be there again?

      Who said increasing payouts to veterans will reduce PTSD?

      Standard veteran pensions aren’t, and shouldn’t be linked to the amount of stress endured, but that’s a story for another day.

      And it is true, if you haven’t lived it, you are not qualified to make a judgement about a person’s psychological state.

      Essentially you have offered nothing to the conversation!

    • Inky says:

      04:28pm | 24/04/12

      Fail indeed.

      Firstly, once again, I remind people that we have a military treaty with the US.

      Secondly, this article isn’t talking about increasing veteran’s payouts. There’s more to it than that.

      Thirdly, unless you’ve invented time travel, it’s a little late to solve the problem by not sending them there. I’d rant more, but it’s time to clock off.

    • acotrel says:

      10:17am | 25/04/12

      @Inky
      ‘Firstly, once again, I remind people that we have a military treaty with the US’

      The ANZUS treaty is a requirement to consult, NOT a defence pact !

    • marley says:

      03:19pm | 25/04/12

      @acotrel -

      So, if the ANZUS treaty (aka The Security Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America) is not a defence pact, can you explain the meaning of this? 

      “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

      That sounds pretty much like a defence pact to me.

    • JTZ says:

      12:42pm | 26/04/12

      @marley, I actaully linked the same thing a while back for acotrel and his/her Labor love fan club and not one reply.

      acotrel is a Labor troll who comes on the Punch site to troll. She/He goal is to put out negativity against Abbott and I think all men.

      I remember a while back there was an article about the courts and men and acotrel made a point that while she was in a cab she heard a man yelling at his wife from the taxi driver dispatch system as to why she had not booked the taxi. As I have driven a taxi in the past and know alot of family friends who own taxi’s I can tell you with out a doubt that there was no way she/he heard this as all calls go to a dispatch centre. Note she never replied to that and she wont reply to your comment.

      @Libfail hmm when was the last time we defended against a indirect threat. You may want to know that Indo considers Australian Aboriginals and Indonesians and believe as they were the first people here in Australia, Australia belongs to them.

      Your line is the same as questioning why Singapore has national service. They havent had a threat for the same period and they have no current direct threat but yet they still enforce NS. Why, for that indirect threat.

    • The Pedant says:

      04:32pm | 24/04/12

      I’m prepared for the soldiers’ return.

      I don’t think I’m prepared for the return of soliders, which is the dire doom the author of this article is proclaiming.

    • AL says:

      04:39pm | 24/04/12

      But by writing a story on US soldiers do you think Australian soldiers are being treated any differently?

      Just look at the success rate of the soldier settlement blocks past Goyder’s line.

      Look at the length of time it took the Vietnam Vets to get a welcome home parade.

      Look how long it took the same vets to get compensation or even recognition of the effects of Agent Orange.

      Look at the disparity in the indexation rates of Military superannuation schemes to the pension let alone the MPs super scheme.

      One of my mates came back from Iraq with PTSD from picking up body parts and took discharge before the system discharged him to avoid the stigma.

      Another came back with a broken back only to be medically discharged and to then have DVA question his entitlement for compensation a matter of months after his forced medical separation from the services.

      Another hasn’t been home for ANY of his daughters birthdays - she is 13.

      You don’t need to go to the US to write a story like this, there are plenty of examples right here, none of them any different or any better reflectance on the government that sent them.

      Read Kipling’s poem “Tommy”, as it was then, as it is now.

    • thequeenofcastile says:

      04:48pm | 24/04/12

      The ADF can’t handle the number of cases it has at the moment, let alone the thousands more once we completely withdraw from Afghanistan and everywhere else. All the government appears to be worried about is how much money everything is costing, fiscally. They are not and never will take into account the pyschological and emotional cost for not treating these vetrans properly in the first place. So they cut the budget every year and a lot of comes out of veteran services.

      These soldiers come home with all sorts of problems and without getting the help they need, they cannot work, they cannot maintain proper social relationships, just to name a few issues. They then end up on the dole, or homeless or alone, or any combination of the above. All because the government wants to save money.

    • Carol says:

      04:55pm | 24/04/12

      To the best of my knowledge we have no conscripts in the ADF at this point in time. Most people would know about the possible outcomes of any conflict, yet they have made their choice.
      So what is the reason, if there is one, for members of the ADF to be treated any differently to any other Australian?
      Many people in todays world suffer stress, it’s part of life, this is yet another reason I hope we never have another world conflict. We’d never have enough medical people to handle all the PTS sufferers.

    • Bev says:

      06:32am | 25/04/12

      Lets put this in another context.  You work in an office in the normal course of your duties you are unlikely to be killed or badly injured. You don’t need an elaborate set of rules to protect your safety the same as you don’t need personal saftey gear (supplied by your employer).  Another person chooses to work in lets say the construction business. they will have elaborate safety rules and they are required to wear safety gear because the chances of death or injury are much higher. You are subject to stress but you are very unlikely to have a concrete block fall and squish the person at the desk next to you.and the stress that will bring.  You could jump up and down and say they are being treated diferently to me.  They get their work clothing, safety gear etc supplied I don’t I have to buy my own.  I have stress too I could break a nail on my keyboard and I don’t get counseling payed for by employer.  It’s just totally unfair they chose to work in that industry why should they be treated differently to me?

    • Al says:

      05:41pm | 25/04/12

      @Carol, “So what is the reason, if there is one, for members of the ADF to be treated any differently to any other Australian?”

      Carol are you prepared to sacrifice your life in your current employment?

      Would you walk in the front door at your place of employment if you knew that you had a 50% chance of walking out alive or have a 75% chance of physical injury that would require the loss of a major limb? When entire units were wiped out in WW1 or a casualty rate of 20000 people was achieved for one day’s work it makes a 50% chance at survival look pretty good.

      Would you be happy to sit in your car knowing that if it was hit by anything capable of penetrating its metal skin it would cause your car to burst into flame and you would be burnt to a crisp? Soldiers who crewed Leopard tanks and LAVs as well as aircrew and sailors face this very real threat.

      How happy would you be to work in an area that had the potential to be so badly contaminated that you had to wear a gas mask and protective suit to protect you from chemical, biological or radiological agents that would kill you in seconds? Anybody who served in Iraq in 1991 faced that threat.

      How happy would you be to know the risk to your life and wellbeing were only considered a diversion for another task by your boss?

      How happy would you be to know your life is expendable for the greater good?

      No other employee in this country willingly offers up their life to their employer to expend or save as they see fit and you ask why the ADF should be treated any differently to any other Australian.

      Perhaps you had better ask why the ADF even after giving this level of obligation and sacrifice to their employer are treated worse than old age pensioners.

      Perhaps you had better ask why the families of these selfless individuals are treated like pariahs and not given the same employment opportunities or educational stability other Australians have.

      Perhaps the citizenship obligations in the film Starship Troopers should be considered beyond their fictional context.

    • Carol says:

      10:46am | 26/04/12

      Bev & Al,
      Surely you both have missed the real point. These people made their own choice, that get paid for what they do. As to risk, there are many jobs that have high levels of risk, police, construction etc.  What % of ADF personnel actually face gun-fire?

    • Al says:

      06:29pm | 26/04/12

      Carol

      “Surely you both have missed the real point.”
      If everyone else is in step and you are not, you’re the individual that has missed the point.

      “These people made their own choice, that get paid for what they do.”
      So you would do it for the minimum wage would you? That is magnanimous of you. If you don’t see a threat why should we pay you at all?

      Tell me, how would you expect your family to continue after you had   been cut down in the prime of your life? Or would you expect everyone else to look after your family for you. We didn’t tell you to get married and have children or for you to have invalid parents, so how about it being your problem?

      “As to risk, there are many jobs that have high levels of risk, police, construction etc. ” You’re going to compare Police and Construction Workers in a free society with soldiers in a war zone are you? You really do have NFI.

      What % of ADF personnel actually face gun-fire?  Every single individual who has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has either been rocketed or mortared or faced the exact same threat. That’s why they call it a war zone numpty.

    • Carol says:

      11:05am | 27/04/12

      Al @ 26/4,
      Just what do any of your puerile comments have to do with this issue?
      I’ll ask again what % of ADF personnell face gun fire?
      For that matter what % leave these shores?
      Just how does the minimum wage get into this discussion?
      I’d go so far as to suggest more people have been killed in industrial accident in the last two or three years than Afghanistan. Really, your post has no relevance to this issue at all.

    • OchreBunyip says:

      04:58pm | 24/04/12

      I believe governments who fail to support their returning soldiers who display combat-related illness do it to cut costs. They deny illness exists so they cannot be held accountable. The cost of a war doesn’t end when the troops come home, but successive governments don’t want to admit to so many damaged lives and the financial cost that would entail.

    • Betterman says:

      05:30pm | 24/04/12

      Former soldier here, and the son of a man who spent two years in Vietnam.
      Dad suffered from significant PTSD from the day he returned. The Australian armed forces’ official position was basically ‘head in the sand’.
      His illness destroyed our family and tore apart the lives of his children. Even now, my relationship with him is characterised by sudden, unpredictable verbal attacks triggered by the smallest factors.
      He’s on TPI pension now, as are many others who watched through gunsights as fellow human beings were torn, maimed and killed. I don’t believe he ever recovered from the horror of realising that he had the blood of hundreds on his hands.
      His torment became my torment in turn. I’ve had demons to fight and I’ve done it. Our government needs to ensure that those that return are treated with care and dignity, and those that depend on them are likewise supported.

    • acotrel says:

      08:26am | 25/04/12

      About ten years ago a statement was made by the DVA, effectively that the problems of kids of ex-servicemen would be better catered for.  It was only about fifty years too late for me !

    • Robert Williamson says:

      04:56am | 25/04/12

      No we are not!! Our services people are treated like pawns in a game, chewed up and spat out. Its disgraceful and tormenting to experience first hand.  The fact is it will never change, as those making the decisions dont have to pull the trigger…...we do and we have to live with it. Dont get me wrong, its a job, but you cant turn the memory bank off like a switch, things come back to haunt even when doing mundane things, having a coffee or doing the washing. FIFO, 8 hrs later sitting in a cafe and expected to turn off, it just doesnt work that way. A lot more are going to hit the wall, because these Canberra clowns simply dont get it and dont have any foresight to deal with it!!

    • acotrel says:

      07:06am | 25/04/12

      Anybody who has ever lived with a returned fighting soldier will tell you of the joy of their company.  The toll on their relationships, and the future relationships of their kids is horrific.  I still have a friend who is fighting PTSD from Vietnam.  The DVA has advised him to attend support groups - he cannot do that, he just wants to forget -should he risk a breakdown to get mental peace ? It is Catch-22 !

    • TheOzTrucker says:

      09:32am | 25/04/12

      They want me to go to a support group. They say it will make me feel as though I am not alone. Problem is when I wake up from the nightmare or when something happens to remind me, I am alone. My ribbons are locked away I’m not wearing them today. I’m not, nor will I ever march again. I will not put little ribbon stickers on the back of my car. They say lest we forget. I will never forget.

    • Luke says:

      08:19am | 25/04/12

      I think it’s time to rise up for a change of Goverment and how things are done in around Australia.

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      10:20am | 25/04/12

      If we are not then we bloody well should be.
      Will our politicians & RSL etc. do what they did with the Vietnam Veterans? When our troops eventually return from Afghanistan, East Timor & any place else our polticians have sent our young to to possibly die a hideous death, Will they be shunned because, as the RSL was reported to have so stupidly claimed with regard to Vietnam, Australia was not actually “At War” when our young were sent there to die?
      Our troops are going through hell, and for what? To satisfy the war-mongerers in Washington & Canberra. Why are so many reportedly suffering from Post Traumatic Shock Disorder? Probably because they know they are being forced to fight in an unjust war.
      The day, some years ago, when it was announced Al Qaeda had been driven out of Afghanistan (that was the reason for the invasion wasn’t it?) was the day our tropps should have been brought home. The Taloban, though their ideas are totally repugnant, are never called “Terrorists” the USA & our own war-mongerers have been referring to them as “Insugents”. Look up the meaning of the word. It has noting to do with Terrorism. Insurgency is defined as ” Citizens of a Country taking up arms against the Government of their country”. An internal, private issue between one set of citizens and another.
      Every single member of the ADF who actually did do the fighting, not those sitting in their cushy offices at home or safe in some city should be given a Pension for Life. 100% Free Health Care and they should all be taken around Australia to march in “Welcome Home” parades

 

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