Monday, May 31, 2010

A tale for Memorial Day

This non-fiction narrative gave me nightmares. That's alright; I needed to know. I hate these wars that our rulers have plunged the United States into for the last decade. I think a lot about the Iraqis whose society has been torn apart; I think about the Afghans whose seemingly permanent state of war looks to be prolonged into an uncertain future. And especially on Memorial Day, I think also about the U.S. troops who've been dumped into a chaotic vortex of death and destruction.

Kelly Kennedy's They Fought for Each Other tells the story of an infantry battalion assigned to pacify the contested Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad at the height of the Iraqi sectarian civil war and the anti-occupation insurgency. Kennedy served herself in the first Gulf War and Somalia before being embedded with these grunts as a reporter for Army Times. She knew enough of their world to be able to genuinely get to know them while they were seeing 31 fellow soldiers killed and more maimed during a 15-month tour of duty that left the unit shredded and broken. These men dealt with the pain by caring for each other; who else could understand?

One of the aspects of the Iraq war that has seemed strangest to me is knowing that along with the U.S. Army have gone computers, air conditioning, TVs broadcasting U.S. channels, coffee bars, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts for the troops. But the amenities are not everywhere. Many U.S. troops at war live under tough conditions. The folks Kennedy embedded with certainly did: men slept in a basement that filled with sewage when it rained and seem to have lived on MREs ("meals ready to eat") for long periods. She tells the story of three senior sergeants summoned to the Green Zone for a ceremony -- and how they responded to the luxuries at headquarters.

Because Hendrix and his soldiers had arrived in the middle of the night, their hosts took them down to the kitchen and unlocked it. "Take whatever you need," the soldier told them, grinning, and then left them n their own. There were shelves and shelves of food. "Hey," Hendrix said. "Fill your pockets. Let's take some back for the guys." Laughing like teenagers, they pocketed M&Ms, granola bars, and glass bottles of Coke, making sure to take enough for their own late-night feast

The next morning, they awoke with big plans: breakfast, swimming pool, shopping.

But they were again stunned by the dining facility, where they found Belgian waffles with any kind of topping. They could order scrambled eggs or poached eggs or fried eggs or omelets -- or all of it. They had a choice: bacon, sausage, hash, or ham; pancakes, French toast, or biscuits; oatmeal, grits, or cereal. "Fill your pockets," Hendrix reminded his guys when he spotted packets of peanut butter and Gatorade mix.

One aspect of the current wars that comes through vividly is the stress that non-stop fighting puts on an all-volunteer force. Kennedy explains

Combat stress appears to be cumulative. The army conducted studies that show the more often a person deploys -- especially those who deploy for a year or longer -- the more likely that person is to develop PTSD.

For many of the men in this unit, Adhamiya was their second tour in Iraq. At home, new recruits were not rushing to join up in those years; the guys already in uniform were sometimes stop-lossed, under pressure to re-up, and the troops had been shaken down to primarily those for whom being in the military felt right. Then those few who had stuck with it were sent out to be chewed up, again and again.

The contemporary military is justly proud of how high a percentage of its soldiers survive battlefield injuries. (Dr. Atul Gawande chronicled this very clearly in his collection of essays Better.) Much of Kennedy's book consists of the stories of soldiers blown up by IEDs, some of whom who survived even with feet or legs severed, and some of whom bled out. But while the medical system is remarkably competent to repair bodies, it left the medics working the front lines feeling utterly inadequate to deal with the emotional and brain injuries they were seeing.

As the medics sat in the center of their aid station living space, a card game devolving into a bullshit session evolving into a serious discussion about how they could better take care of their men, they expressed frustration. They felt their biggest job had become dealing with mental health issues, but they didn't have as much Big-Army support as they needed.

Mental health, Smith said, took a backseat to everything else that had to be done before deploying. "Army-wide, the attitude is, 'We don't have time for that,' " he said, but he was preaching to the choir.

"The Army is choosing not to acknowledge that it's a problem because they couldn't deal with the repercussions of acknowledging it. It's obviously really hard on the men -- the things they see and go through. If you started to acknowledge that, it would be combat-ineffective. There would be too many people who would need help."

Those who survived too often found the Army on the home front completely unready to deal with the condition in which they returned. The military estimates that 20 percent of Iraq vets have war-related traumatic brain injuries. Kennedy follows Staff Sergeant Ian Newland's experiences. Newland survived a grenade blast because his friend Ross McGuiness threw himself on the explosive (McGuiness was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously). Sent back to base in Germany, he could see his buddies, also returned from the war zone, failing to get what they needed.

Because of the brain injury, the trauma of shrapnel wounds, and the combat stress he'd faced, he had been diagnosed with depression, confusion, migraines, and flashbacks. Some of the bits of shrapnel embedded in his limbs worked their way out, feeling like thick needles tearing through his flesh. The doctors had removed some pieces. Some, the doctors told him, would remain trapped in his limbs for the rest of his life. His jaw had been broken, he had nerve damage in his wrist, and he walked with a cane because of the damage to his thigh.

Every day he would call someone in the chain of command and explain why his soldiers needed someone to take care of them. And he warned them that if they didn't have a better mental health system in place when his battalion returned home, there'd be trouble. He worried that marriages would end, people would drive while intoxicated and take other risks, and that someone would commit suicide. Based on his own experiences, he had no doubt of that. He made sure people listened.

These guys did everything they could to take care of each other. Two soldiers, Ryan Wood and Gerry DeNardi, summed up their days in a ballad:

War, it degrades the heart
And poisons the mind
And we're tossed aside
By governments' lies
But we continue to grieve.
Memorial Day should remind us of these guys, as well as of the start of summer.


Darlene said...

I wish the old men who send young men to war had to be with them every step of the way; especially in combat. Wars would soon end.

Kay Dennison said...

God Bless you for sharing this. I've added it to my 'must read' list.

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