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Veterans’ lingering wounds

By David Philipps
Guest Blogger

About this post: The soldiers were all part of the same unit from Fort Carson, Colo., and when they returned home from some of the worst regions in Iraq after multiple tours of duty, many went on drug-fueled crime sprees including random shootings, brawls, beatings, rapes, driving under the influence, domestic violence, stabbings, kidnappings and suicide. In “Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home,” published this week by Palgrave Macmillan, David Philipps tells the harrowing tale of these soldiers and their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here, Philipps, a feature writer for the Colorado Springs Gazette and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, takes a Veterans Day look at how PTSD has become an issue of vital concern to our troops and our nation.

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The changing face of the American veteran is perhaps best seen in two young, former soldiers, Jose Barco and Kenneth Eastridge, who exemplify a new, unexpected and deeply unsettling outcome of modern combat.

Both men joined the Army as infantry riflemen right after high school. Both were hit by powerful improvised explosives in Iraq. Both were ultimately saved by modern armor and advanced medicine. Both returned to active duty.

And both are now sitting in prison.

The United States is about to enter its 10th year at war. As America marks Veterans Day, it is critical to consider how the ever-evolving nature of conflict has also changed the nature of wounds, and how it has the potential to create a generation of veterans like Barco and Eastridge.

More troops are making it home alive than ever before – at least as a proportion of the total force. In the Civil War and World War II, one in three soldiers wounded in battle died from their injuries. In Vietnam, the odds improved to one in four.

Today, it is closer to one in 15. In addition, body armor and heavily fortified vehicles keep many troops from being injured in the first place. An explosion that might have vaporized an infantry platoon in 1860 or even 1968, might cause nothing more than a handful of concussions to a platoon riding in armored Humvees.

On the surface, this is good news, but in practice it means troops are now able to endure more combat than ever. After so many years of war, many are increasingly stressed out, worn out and used up.

Soldiers are now called on to serve multiple tours of duty. Because of the nature of the conflicts both in Afghanistan and Iraq, many soldiers are immersed in hostile areas with no clear enemy nearly every day for a year or more. In the constant fear and uncertainty, many develop combat stress injuries such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Thanks to modern armor and medicine, they increasingly return home in one piece, but because of the unchanging viciousness of war, psychologically, they are often in pieces.

The effects of this new dynamic on the military are increasingly clear. In the Army, more than 200,000 soldiers are currently getting some kind of mental health care. One hundred thousand are taking prescription drugs. The number of active duty soldiers who committed suicide has more than tripled in the past 10 years, and in 2010 is on pace to set a new record. An increasing number of soldiers are killing themselves, a recent Army report says, through drug overdoses, reckless driving and other “high risk behavior.” And the number of soldiers getting divorced or arrested for crimes continues to rise.

Both Jose Barco and Kenneth Eastridge served with the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team based at Fort Carson, Colo. Both deployed to the most violent places in Iraq. Both were given medals for good conduct. Both were liked by their fellow soldiers.

But both, after two tours, struggled to find normalcy, and they leaned increasingly on substance abuse and loaded weapons to make them feel sane. It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt.

Barco was arrested for attempted murder, after shooting a pregnant woman at a party. Eastridge was arrested for the murder of a fellow soldier. They are not alone.

In the year after their brigade returned from Iraq in 2007, eight soldiers were arrested for murder or attempted murder. The problem may be much larger than just one brigade in Colorado, but the number of active-duty troops and recent veterans arrested for crimes is hard to track. And currently, no one is even trying.

Murder is an extreme outcome of the psychological injuries modern casualties can bring home from war. Most veterans struggling with depression, paranoia or PTSD never harm anyone. But the growing malaise in the force is evidence that the changing face of combat means veterans returning from war without a scratch still may need to be treated for wounds.

Sitting at a table in prison, Kenneth Eastridge said troops need meaningful reintegration training to help them heal and find a place in civil society. “There are guys all over the country like me now,” he said. “Somehow you have to help these guys – change the mindset. If you don’t, this kind of stuff is just going to keep happening.”

By David Philipps  | November 11, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  post traumatic stress disorder; veterans' at home; veteran violence; veteran suicide  
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Comments

And the divorce rate in 1946 was the highest in history at the time,

Posted by: gonville1 | November 11, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse


When the Stay-At-Home "Patriots" get suckered, this is what happens. Perhaps they think that we vets respect them for all their silly praise, but they have it exactly backwards: We have NO respect for those who would hide at home while they sent their own sons and daughters to kill the dons and daughters and fathers and mothers and children and babies, of others, who had done NOTHING to us!

If they want to help the vets, they must get all the conservatives out of office, those who not only sent our troops to unnecessary wars, but took away their benefits while they were over there!

When I asked for the benefits I earned in 1966-69, I was refused , because the conservatives Frist and DeLay had taken them away from me in 2003, on their way to a "support the troops" rally.

Maybe it's time for the vets to come home and beat up those who sent them to do that terrible killing for them. It's better than beating up wives, kids, and innocent folk.

Posted by: gkam | November 11, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

"The changing face of the American veteran is perhaps best seen in two young, former soldiers, Jose Barco and Kenneth Eastridge"

I am wrong to be offended that, with this statement, David Phillips has likened me and my kind to a murder and an attempted murder? For the record, Mr. Phillips, most of us are fairly well-adjusted, hard-working and resilient. I know that would make a horrible subject for a book, however.

True, there will always be an element within our military--as within every segment of society--that does not live up to our values. People like Mr. Phillips enable this population, handling them with kid gloves and telling them that they are sick--it's not their fault.

I do believe that PTSD is a real phenomenon (see Shay's Achilles in Vietnam for a powerful treatment of the subject), and I have known those among us who exhibit it. There are a great many others, though, who attempt to use it as a free pass to do as they please, knowing that they'll be excused by a public cowed because they have largely not been asked to serve themselves. To characterize all of us by the example of these two former soldiers feeds public perception, tarnishes our reputation, and further enables the worst segment of our organization.

Posted by: mts28 | November 11, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

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