Part II: Soldiering on? The invisible injuries of war

Krystalline Kraus | November 6, 2009  |  www.rabble.ca

 

Next week, on November 11, veterans will get only two minutes of recognition -- if people stop to reflect at all -- while the rest of the year their sacrifice is forgotten.

If Canada’s mission in Afghanistan does end in 2011, 35,000 men and women will have served in that theatre -- 133 have been killed thus far -- and the Canadian Forces’ (CF) low estimate is that as many as 2,000 could be returning home with an Operational Stress Injury (OSI) such as PTSD.

These soldiers will return home with, among other things, an OSI or plagued by survivor’s guilt and the pressure to do good by their dead friends; first they bury them and then they bury their own feelings. As the saying goes: Survivors die twice.

Massacre at Fort Hood:

The problems the U.S. military would prefer to hide violently surged to the public’s attention when Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a 39-year-old U.S. Army psychiatrist, allegedly opened fire yesterday afternoon at Fort Hood, Texas. He is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30.

A New York Times article features an interview with Hasan’s cousin, who states that he expressed deep concern about being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan; the cousin also notes that Hasan’s job was to counsel returning soldiers suffering with PTSD which gave him an intimate window into the horrors of war. This made him fearful of deploying to either theatre. His cousin also claims he was having second thoughts about his military career a few years ago after other soldiers harassed him for being a Muslim.

Bringing the war home:

After the battle’s over, some scars are more visible than others. But they can’t stay hidden forever, and like tiny landmines they will eventually explode. Nor should they be a hidden shame. Refusing to acknowledge the challenges faced by active duty, reservists or veterans is as insulting as refusing to properly acknowledge the dead; and one presidential visit to inspect a standing army of coffins isn’t enough.

This is the horror of war that society and -- too often -- the anti-war community fail to acknowledge. We cry and lament for the civilian casualties and too often hate the individual soldiers who we insist are cold hearted bastards who enlisted to kill, ignoring the reality of military recruitment tactics that purposefully target young vulnerable teenagers and young adults often from poor and disadvantaged urban centers, rural communities and First Nation reserves with the promise of medallion glory and video-game thrills; or, more simply, the promise of a large sign-up bonus and free healthcare.

The damage done by war

The damage from war and our society’s treatment of these heroes is damning. The statistics are explosive.

Exposure to war time violence can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) -- the Canadian government uses the term Operation Stress Injury (OSI) instead of the DSM-IV diagnosis of PTSD since apparently soldiers who “cannot cope” with the reality of war are just “stressed.”

The impact and fallout on troops can be devastating on the soldier and their family. Symptoms of PTSD (or shell shock as it was once called) include persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal, emotionally numbness, especially with people with whom they were once close. Sufferers may also experience sleep problems or be easily startled.

The Harper government’s military policy paper, 'The Canada First Defence Strategy,' proposes spending $490 billion on the military over the next 20 years. Instead of spending tax payers money on bombs and bullets, money should be invested in veteran specific health care needs, especially better access to mental health services. 

Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Walter Natynchuk, has pledged to do more to assist soldiers suffering from OSI, but is quick to blame the military’s warrior culture without acknowledging the systemic refusal to acknowledge how deep the problem runs.

One bright light in the darkness is a new program offered by Veterans Affairs Canada called Operational Stress Injury Support Services (OSISS), which began offering peer-support counseling to returning soldiers of all rank, bars and stripes, including active-duty, reservists and veterans.

In a 2002 NOW Magazine article Terry Allan interviewed Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire (Ret.'d) about the long-term consequences of his war experiences. “Eight years after Rwanda, in daylight and in dreams, Dallaire still hears the cries of wounded children, the weeping of survivors, the voice of the man who died at the other end of a phone line as the general listened. He still can't escape the smell of death, the memories of hacked-off limbs scattered on the ground, and worst of all, he says, the ‘thousands upon thousands of sets of eyes in the night, in the dark, just floating and looking back’ at him in anger, accusation, or eternal pleading.”

Now a Senator, Dallaire has estimated, “about 20 per cent of troops and humanitarian workers on missions like his suffer much the same thing, as do 5 to 10 percent of diplomats. ‘They are casualties … High suicide rates, booze, drugs, pornography, finding themselves on skid row.’

Whisper the word Rwanda and everyone knows the horror you’re referencing, the horror that Dallaire and other Canadian peacekeepers lived through in 1994 while thousands and thousands of the people they were UN mandated to protect did not.

“Ultimately PTSD leads to suicide,” he said. “I tried to kill myself four times.” To suggest that Dallaire, who has been open about his battles with PTSD, is weak-minded or weak willed is an insult to every one of Canada’s heroes. 

Glass soldiers

Soldiers like to believe they are invinsible, that they are steel warriors. Sure, Kevlar helmets and Molle vests protect the body, but what about the mind and the pride that soldiers often carry that prevents them from seeking help even when their lives are falling apart? Along with mental health issues, returning soldiers often face social and personal problems such as rising incarceration rates.

According to a November 2008 report, 4,000 new cases of PTSD in the UK were reported last year and service personnel on operations are nine times more likely to suffer than those not posted. It also found that women were more vulnerable to the condition, with an eight out of 1,000 chance rather than the four out of 1,000 chance for men.

A UK National Association of Probation Officers report, issued September 25, 2009, stated, “Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are behind an alarming rise in the number of former British soldiers ending up in prison, a report says -- and more veterans have had tangles with the law than there are British troops in Afghanistan. It also noted that most veterans don't receive adequate counseling or support when they leave the armed forces.”

The statistics are hauntingly similar for Canadian soldiers. Our heroes are dying, with suicide rates more than double those of the general population.

These statistics only include active duty service personnel and do not include reservists or veterans, as the Department of National Defense (DND) does not currently track overall suicide rates despite calls for greater transparency from the public, the media and Canadian politicians like Senator Dellaire.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation found that the suicide rate among Canada's soldiers doubled from 2006 to 2007.  Last year, the number of suicides among regular and reserve members of the Canadian Forces rose to its highest point in more than a decade. Veterans Affairs says that the number of vets experiencing some kind of operational stress injury, such as PTSD, has tripled in the past five years, and they expect it to continue rising with Canada's mission in Afghanistan likely to last until 2011. It has also recently pledged to review the way the Department of Defence tracks suicide rates. (For the U.S., the month of January 2009 brought the highest rate of suicide among all branches of the U.S. military and had the highest rates since 1980.

Killing overseas and killing our own

If the Department of National Defense and Veterans Affairs Canada are speaking the truth regarding wanting to break the stigma of mental health issues within military, than nothing less than full disclosure and transparency, as opposed to secrecy and shame, regarding suicide statistics is necessary for healing to begin.

Senator Dallaire, in an exclusive interview with the CBC, said, “I mean there are regiments who won't recognize that one of their soldiers who's committed suicide, you know, a year or so after a mission, should go on the list of those who are a casualty of the mission. If you're killed in operation, your name is on the Honour List. But if you kill yourself due to the injury of that operation, then you're not recognized.”

In regards to the military structure, Dallaire blames the middle level functionaries for stalling the disclosure. It is they “who feel that they've got the responsibility of the purses of the government, who feel they've got the responsibilities of not setting up precedents and of applying the rules and so on. They're the ones both in DND and in Veterans Affairs, they are the ones who are making it more difficult,” he said.

If the military demands loyalty from its troops, then the troops should expect loyalty in return, loyalty in good times as in bad, during victory parades and when a soldier breaks down.

Canadians cannot have it both ways; a hero-honouring culture that does not honour its heroes. Neither can the anti-war movement rail against the treatment of civilians, foreign combatants and detainees -- the war overseas -- while ignoring the challenges facing soldiers and veterans who have brought the war home. All are casualties. This is where a new peace keeping effort must begin.

krystalline kraus is a Toronto-based writer.

Read Part I of this article http://rabble.ca/news/2009/10/soldiering-human-cost-war

 

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