Wednesday, September 05, 2007

After Iraq

We've blogged about this before. Military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, untreated, fill our prisons and in some cases our death rows. We've executed a number of veterans who served in Vietnam and a few who served in the first Gulf War. (Two of the three federal prisoners executed in what we refer to as the "modern era" were military veterans.)

And as sure as summer turns to fall, we will execute them again.

This past Sunday, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by a young woman just out of Yale University by the name of Sarah Stillman. The piece takes a somewhat personal look at some of the folks returning home from Iraq. Here are some snippets:

The wounds on my friend Pete Yazgier's head come in as many colors as Cezanne's fruit bowls.

Cherry-hued flecks dot the left half of his skull -- grim mementos of the rocket-propelled grenade that walloped his armored vehicle in Baghdad last September. A bright scar bends like a stalk of rhubarb above his left ear, the result of six surgeries to treat the brain cancer doctors found while ministering to his shrapnel wounds; they fear the tumor was caused by depleted uranium that Pete, 28, handled as an Army mechanic.

And now, a plum-like bulge on his upper right jaw ripens before my eyes. This, oddly enough, is the one that really scares me: It's the aftermath of a Marine's clenched fist that hurled into Pete's face just moments ago.

Only the bar gods know exactly how the skirmish began. But I'm guessing it went something like it did just the week before:

Marine: "Hey, [fornicator], what are you staring at?"

Army guy: "I don't know, you [fornicating] Jarhead, you tell me."

Marine: "I think I'm staring at a [fornication-head] who's about to get his [buttocks] kicked."

Lame invectives turn to blows. Soused onlookers hustle to their buddies' defense. Only when a huge bouncer enters the fray do flying fists cease and desist -- Marines head for the front exit, Army guys to the bar. As I search for ice to press against Pete's busted cheek, the cops appear, looking downright bored by the redundancy of the mayhem.

Yes, sir, it's another Friday night at R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, a cozy bar in College Park, where wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center come to fuel up on Coronas, honky-tonk dance and the "Rocky"-style pummelings I've seen on half a dozen visits this summer.


Half a decade into the "war on terror," America's bars have become our barometers: instruments that measure the extent to which our veterans have been left to wrestle alone with substance abuse, anxiety disorders and other mental health problems after long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The men and women who come back from the traumas of war "are often hyper-alert, quick to respond and susceptible to a loss of impulse control," says clinical psychologist Jeffrey Jay of the Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Studies in Washington. "The brain is actually altered by these experiences -- it's part of a survival mechanism, and it's very confusing for them."

It's similarly confusing for watering holes such as R.J. Bentley's, where Pete likes to go because it's the only bar around that occasionally plays the kind of country music he loves. "We've seen a massive rise in customers, thanks to Walter Reed," one bouncer at Bentley's told me. "But we've also seen a rise in fights."

Police and news reports corroborate that fighting has been mounting in nightclubs, restaurants and bars near military bases nationwide: places such as McDonough's Restaurant & Lounge near Fort Stewart, Ga.; O'Blarney's Irish Pub south of Fort Lewis, Wash.; the entire "Strip" near Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Drunken driving and bar brawls so plagued the area around Fort Carson, Colo., that a National Guard unit was put on "lockdown status" after returning from Afghanistan in June. In the District, the Hawk 'n' Dove, a Capitol Hill bar, has banned Marines without female dates.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the Norfolk County district attorney's office has begun an initiative called "Beyond the Yellow Ribbons" to prepare police and others to deal with struggling vets and the stigmas they face. District Attorney William R. Keating says he has received requests for the program's training video from organizations in more than 20 states, because "the federal government simply isn't providing enough guidance on how to deal with this."


On a recent night at R.J. Bentley's, I perched near a young man nursing a flask of whiskey who told me he'd been ordered to collect his best friend's body parts from the crater of an improvised explosive device, and an older vet with darting eyes who said he'd tried to slit his wrists in Kuwait rather than return to Fallujah. And if you agree that trauma begets trauma, the evening's trajectory won't surprise you: Mix equal parts broken bodies and frayed minds, stir in college kids who couldn't tell an IED from an iPod, add alcohol, and things are bound to get explosive.

I suspect these aren't just the sort of routine bar fights that have typified military culture since George Washington's troops sneaked their first swigs of moonshine. Strike Pete Yazgier, and you may slice your knuckles on his titanium skull. Toss an elbow at the man in the corner, and you could get a shin-kick from his $26,000 motorized foot, an emblem of the spectacular violence that new technologies are helping today's troops survive.

The rough-and-tumble encounters jibe with national statistics on the effects of longer, repeated tours of duty. Soldiers who've deployed to Iraq more than once have a 50 percent higher rate of combat stress, according to one Army study, and soldiers with a higher rate of combat stress exhibit approximately a 10 percent increase in anger-management issues. Simple diagnoses such as "post-traumatic stress disorder" and "generalized anxiety disorder" collapse under the weight of it.

Consider Jonathan Schulze, an Iraq vet with two Purple Hearts who got drunk at a Minnesota bar in January, then went home and hanged himself from an electrical cord wrapped around a beam in his basement. The tragedy unfolded only after the Marine machine-gunner returned from Ramadi with deep psychological wounds, threw a 200-pound potted tree through a window during a brawl, and beseeched the local Veterans Affairs Department for help, only to be told that his suicidal confessions put him 26th on the waiting list for assistance. (According to a recent Pentagon report, suicide rates are 35 percent higher for Iraq veterans than for the general population.)

Then there are cases like that of Spec. Richard Davis, who survived "shock and awe" in Baghdad only to be stabbed to death by his fellow soldiers in 2003 after celebrating his homecoming at a Hooters restaurant and a topless bar near Fort Benning, Ga.

You can read the whole thing here.

Whether you support or oppose the death penalty, whether you support or oppose the war in Iraq, surely we can all agree that our returning soldiers deserve better treatment than they are getting.

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