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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Endless War: The Suicide of the United States

"We hear war called murder. It is not: it is suicide."
- Ramsay MacDonald, British prime minister 1931-1935

Sergio Kochergin, back home from his second deployment in Iraq, held a gun in his mouth, trying to muster the courage to pull the trigger. Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and accompanying nightmares and insomnia, heavy substance abuse, and several failed attempts at self-medication had taken their toll on him. He was in an apartment he shared with a friend in Texarkana, Texas, after having spent the past few months with his parents, where he "was drinking too much and causing too much trouble, breaking things, flipping out every day, and cursing at them."

The decision to end his life came in early 2007, from a desperate need for relief and to avoid deployment back to Iraq. Although Kochergin's contract had expired, it would have taken more than six months for him to be medically discharged from the military, a period during which he was sure to be redeployed.

A year later, describing his aborted attempt to me, Kochergin said, "I had a .40-caliber in my mouth for a long time, trying to ?gure out the right thing to do. Should I put an end to this suffering or should I allow it to continue to torment me? Fortunately, I fell asleep and woke up the next morning. My roommate came in and fucking flipped out on me and took the gun away to his parents' house. I stepped out, and with a deep breath of air I was like, 'Man, this is way too good to just throw away.' After that, I decided I had to do something. That's when it sunk in that there's no point running away. I must start dealing with it and do something and that kind of pushed me up."

At the time we met, Kochergin had seized the moment of hope that came his way and managed to ?nd a constructive route out of his suffering and possible redeployment. Thousands of others never get or grab that chance.

On July 26, the Colorado Springs Gazette ran a story headlined "Casualties of War, Part I: The hell of war comes home." The article highlighted what is happening to soldiers upon their return from the occupation of Iraq. It begins:

Before the murders started, Anthony Marquez's mom dialed his sergeant at Fort Carson to warn that her son was poised to kill.

It was February 2006, and the 21-year-old soldier had not been the same since being wounded and coming home from Iraq eight months before. He had violent outbursts and thrashing nightmares. He was devouring pain pills and drinking too much. He always packed a gun.

"It was a dangerous combination. I told them he was a walking time bomb," said his mother, Teresa Hernandez.

His sergeant told her there was nothing he could do. Then, she said, he started taunting her son, saying things like, "Your mommy called. She says you are going crazy."

Eight months later, the time bomb exploded when her son used a stun gun to repeatedly shock a small-time drug dealer in Widefield over an ounce of marijuana, then shot him through the heart.

Marquez was the first infantry soldier in his brigade to murder someone after returning from Iraq. But he wasn't the last.

Marquez, like many others in his brigade, returned home scarred from war, suffering the ravages of PTSD. He, like his fellow soldiers, began to murder civilians and each other, drive around and shoot at people, beat their former girlfriends to death, rape, kidnap, brawl, deal drugs, stab people, commit suicide, and self-medicate via alcohol and drugs.

From 2007 to 2008, the murder rate for his brigade, the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, was 114 times that of Colorado Springs.

Soldiers are returning from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed mentally, spiritually, and psychologically, to a general population that is, mostly, willfully ignorant of the occupations and the soldiers participating in them. Troops face a Department of Veterans Affairs that is either unwilling or unable to help them with their physical and psychological wounds, and they are left to fend for themselves. It is a perfect storm of denial, neglect, violence, rage, suffering, and death.

Veterans are roaming the country wrought with PTSD. They are armed and dangerous. They are killers.

One of the soldiers in the Gazette article served two tours in Iraq and returned home, like Kochergin, "depressed, paranoid, violent, abusing drugs and haunted by nightmares. But because he was other-than-honorably discharged, he said, he was ineligible for benefits or health care. He was no longer Uncle Sam's problem. He was on his own.

"I had no job training," he said. "All I know how to do is kill people."

Ten infantrymen in his brigade have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter since 2006. Others have committed or attempted suicide.

What is happening to the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team is true of literally hundreds of thousands of veterans across the US.

There are numerous instances of veterans attempting to kill themselves after they return from their deployments. Some of these incidents seem to be an effort to avoid redeployment. Many more look like desperate bids to stop, once and for all, the internal pain that many veterans experience.

After witnessing atrocities in Sadr City in Baghdad, Kristopher Goldsmith had returned home shattered, only to learn he was being stop-lossed and redeployed to Iraq. Testifying on the panel "Breakdown of the Military" at a Winter Soldier event in Silver Spring, Maryland, Goldsmith gave an account of his response to the news:

The moment I learned that, I swung from being the happiest I had ever been in my life to the most depressed. My joy had come from the sense of relief I felt at the thought of being released from the prison called the Army. When that prospect receded, I experienced the most depressing, most agonizing downward spiral I could imagine anyone going through. I was to be redeployed the same week as I had hoped to be discharged, as per my contract, and that was in May of 2007. The day before I ... was supposed to deploy, Memorial Day, I went out onto a field in Fort Stewart where there's a memoriam, a tree planted for every soldier in the Third Infantry Division who has died. I went out among those fallen soldiers and tried to take my own life. I took pills, and I went back to my regular poison of vodka, and drank until I couldn't drink anymore. The next thing I knew, I was handcuffed to a gurney in the hospital. The cops had found me and literally dragged my body into an ambulance, threw me in there, and locked me up. I spent a week in a mental ward - now mind you I was diagnosed because I had ?nally sought mental health. I thought I was having a heart attack. I believed myself to be strong, but on hearing I was stop-lossed I started having panic attacks and I couldn't admit that I was mentally or emotionally broken. So I went into the hospital complaining of chest pain and they had me seek a mental-health professional. They diagnosed me with depression and anxiety disorder, and adjustment disorder. But I was still set to be deployed, obviously [a] broken soldier, but set to deploy.

Goldsmith's ordeal did not end there. He ultimately obtained a general discharge from the military, but the papers cited the reasons for discharge as, "Misconduct, serious offense." The irony was not lost on the audience when Goldsmith said:

My serious offense was trying to kill myself because I was so damaged by the war - the occupation in Iraq. It was misconduct for me not to get on the ?ight while I was chained or handcuffed to a bed in the hospital. So I lost my college benefits, the one thing that had really given me hope in life that I was looking for - you know, I was gonna be a student, I didn't know where, I didn't know what I was gonna study, but I knew I was going to college in September of '07. That didn't happen. My money is disappearing between VA visits and personal instability. I've found it extremely hard to ?nd a job. To tell you the truth, I haven't really looked because I'm having a rough time. So I deliver pizzas on Wednesdays, that's what I am now, a pizza delivery boy. I was a sergeant, I was a leader, I was a trainer, I was very well thought of. I was one of the most professional soldiers.... I mean I got the paperwork right here in front of me if anyone ever wants to see the proof that I was a very good soldier. But now I'm a pizza delivery boy who works once a week because that's the only job where I can call in a couple hours before and say, "I'm still at the VA, I'm waiting in line. I'm sorry I can't come in for a couple hours."

I interviewed Goldsmith shortly after his testimony. "War is a really destructive thing," he told me. "It follows you home. And it doesn't go away."

What kind of homes filled with the specter of a distant war will this country be filled with as more of our broken, wounded, and destroyed soldiers are brought back?

In April 2008, the RAND Corporation released a stunning report revealing, "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan - 300,000 in all - report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment."

The situation continues to worsen. In the six months leading up to March 31, 2008,
1,467 veterans died while waiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved by the government. The average duration of an appeal pending a VA decision on disability claims is 1,608 days, which amounts to nearly four and a half years.

As a result, the suffering of returning vets is compounded by the agonizing wait. In 2007, the Army's official suicide count was 115, the most since the Pentagon began keeping suicide statistics in 1980. In 2008, it rose to 133, and 2009 is currently on track to set yet another grim record.

Meanwhile, the military continues to attempt to conceal the depth of the crisis.

When the Pentagon reports the number of US troops wounded in Iraq (just over 31,000), it fails to mention that it tracks two other categories of injuries: "injured" (10,180) and "ill" (28,451). All three groups comprise soldiers who have to be medically evacuated to Germany for treatment.

When the VA will not deliver the necessary care, many veterans turn to alcohol and drugs for self-medication. In the Pentagon's recent post-deployment survey of health-related behavior, released in November 2007, of 88,235 soldiers surveyed three to six months after returning, 12 percent of active-duty troops and 15 percent of reservists acknowledged having problems with alcohol.

The more fortunate among the troops do not need to self-medicate. The military does it for them, in order to keep enough boots on the ground. The dual objective of medicating soldiers is to steady their nerves and to enable an already troop-starved military to retain soldiers on the front lines. Mark Thompson reports in Time magazine, "Data contained in the Army's fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that, according to an anonymous survey of US troops taken last fall, about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope."

Sergeant Christopher LeJeune has firsthand experience of this "treatment." He was diagnosed with depression, and the military doctor he consulted sent him back into the field with the antidepressant Zoloft and an anti-anxiety drug called clonazepam. He says in the Time article, "It's not easy for soldiers to admit the problems that they're having over there for a variety of reasons. If they do admit it, then the only solution given is pills."

Two out of five suicide victims among troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been found to be on antidepressants. More