The wounds of the drone warrior
Even soldiers who fight wars from a safe distance have found themselves traumatized.
In the spring of 2006, Christopher Aaron (last name omitted) started working 12-hour shifts in a windowless room at the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center in Langley, Va. He sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones. On some days, what appeared before Aarons eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes, an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa. If a Hellfire missile killed the target, it occurred to Aaron as he stared at the screen, everything the imam might have told his pupils about Americas war with their faith would be confirmed.
The infrared sensors and high-resolution cameras affixed to drones made it possible to pick up such details in Virginia. But as Aaron learned, identifying who was in the cross hairs of a potential drone strike wasnt always straightforward. The feed on the monitors could be grainy, making it easy to mistake a civilian trudging down a road with a walking stick for an insurgent carry-ing a weapon. How certain could Aaron be of who they were?
On good days, when a host of environmental, human and technological factors came together, we had a strong sense that who we were looking at was the person we were looking for, Aaron said. On bad days, we were literally guessing.
Initially, the good days outnumbered the bad ones for Aaron. He wasnt bothered by the long shifts, the high-pressure decisions, or the strangeness of being able to stalk and potentially kill targets from thousands of miles away. Although Aaron and his peers spent more time doing surveillance and reconnaissance than coordinating strikes, sometimes they would relay information to a commander about what they saw on-screen and, 60 seconds later, depending on what we would report, you would either see a missile fired or not, he said. The first few times he saw a Predator drone unleash its lethal payload the camera zooming in, the laser locking on, a plume of smoke rising above the scorched terrain where the missile struck he found it surreal. But he also found it awe-inspiring. Often, he experienced a surge of adrena-line, as analysts in the room exchanged high-fives.
Aarons path to the drone program was unusual. He grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. His parents were former hippies who marched against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. But Aaron revered his grandfather, a quiet man who served in World War II. He attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where he majored in history, with a minor in business.
During Aarons junior year in 2001, he woke up one morning to a phone call from his father, who told him that the twin towers and the Pentagon had been attacked. Aaron thought instantly of his grandfather, who served for three years on the European front after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wanted to do something similarly heroic. A year later, after spotting a pamphlet at the college career-services office for the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency, a national-security agency that specializes in geographical and imagery analysis, he applied for a job there.
Aaron began working as an imagery analyst at the N.G.A. in 2005, studying satellite pictures of countries that had no link to the war on terror. Not long after he arrived, an email circulated about a Department of Defense task force that was being created to determine how drones could help defeat Al Qaeda. Aaron answered the call for volunteers and was soon working at the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center. He found it exhilarat-ing to participate directly in a war he saw as his generations defining challenge. His pride deepened as it became clear that the task force was having a significant impact.
Aaron spent a little over a year at the task force, including several months in Afghanistan, where he served as the point of contact between the drone center in Langley and Special Forces on the ground. In 2010, an offer came from a private contractor involved in the drone program to serve as an imagery-and- intelligence analyst. But as Aaron mulled the terms, something strange happened; he began to fall apart physically. The distress began with headaches, night chills, joint pain. Soon, more debilitating symptoms emerged waves of nausea, eruptions of skin welts, chronic digestive problems. Working for the contractor was out of the question. I could not sign the paperwork, he said. Every time he sat down to try, my hands stopped working. I was feverish, sick, nauseous.
Aaron went back to Lexington to live with his parents and try to recuperate. He was 29 and in the throes of a breakdown. He consulted several doctors, none of whom could specify a diagnosis. In desperation, he experimented with fasting, yoga, Chinese herbal medicine. Eventually, his health improved, but his mood continued to spiral downward. He couldnt muster any motivation. He spent his days in a fog of gloom. At night, he dreamed that he could see up close, in real time innocent people being maimed and killed, their bodies dismembered, their faces contorted in agony. It was as though my brain was telling me: Here are the details that you missed out on, he said. Now watch them when youre dreaming.
It has been almost 16 years since a missile fired from a drone struck a Toyota Land Cruiser in northwest Yemen, killing all six of its passengers and inaugurating a new era in American warfare. Today, targeted killings by drones have become the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Although the drone program is swathed in secrecy the C.I.A. and the military share responsi-bility for it analysts believe American drones have been used to carry out airstrikes in at least eight different countries.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization that has been tracking drone killings since 2010, U.S. drone strikes have killed between 7,584 and 10,918 people, including 751 to 1,555 civilians, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The U.S. governments figures are far lower. It claims that only between 64 and 116 non-combatants outside areas of active hostilities were killed by drones between 2009 and 2016. But as a report published last year by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies noted, the government has failed to release basic information about civilian casualties or to explain in detail why its data veers so significantly from that of independent monitors and NGOs.
Kill chain operations expanded under President Barack Obama, who authorized roughly 500 drone strikes outside active conflict zones during his presidency, 10 times the number under George W. Bush. (This number does not include strikes carried out in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.) These operations have continued to grow under President Donald Trump, who oversaw five times as many lethal strikes during his first seven months in office as Obama did during his last six months, analysts believe.
The escalation of the drone wars has been met with strikingly little congressional or popular opposition. Unlike the policy of capturing and interrogating terrorism suspects that was adopted after September 11, which fueled vigorous debate about torture and indefinite detention, drone warfare has been largely absent from public discourse. Among ordinary citizens, drones seem to have deadened the impulse to reflect on the harm they cause, which the public rarely sees or hears about.
The sanitized language that public officials have used to describe drone strikes (surgical, for example) has played into the perception that drones have turned warfare into a costless and bloodless exercise. Drones have fostered the alluring prospect that terrorism can be eliminated with the push of a button, a function performed by joystick warriors engaged in an activity as carefree and impersonal as a video game. Philip Alston, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, warned in 2010 that remotely piloted aircraft could create a PlayStation mentality to killing that hides wars moral gravity.
But the more we have learned about the experiences of actual drone fighters, the more this idea has been revealed as a fantasy. In one recent survey, Wayne Chappelle and Lillian Prince, researchers for the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio, drew on interviews that they and other colleagues conducted with 141 intelligence analysts and officers involved in remote combat operations to assess their emotional reactions to killing. Far from exhibiting a sense of carefree detachment, three-fourths reported feeling grief, remorse and sadness. According to another recent study conducted by the Air Force, drone analysts in the kill chain are exposed to more graphic violence seeing destroyed homes and villages, witnessing dead bodies or human remains than most Special Forces on the ground.
Because the drone program is kept hidden from view, the American public rarely hears about the psychic and emotional impact of seeing such footage on a daily basis. Compared with soldiers who have endured blasts from roadside bombs a cause of brain injuries and PTSD among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the wounds of drone pilots may seem incon-sequential. But in recent years, a growing number of researchers have argued that the focus on brain injuries has obscured other kinds of combat trauma that may be harder to detect but can be no less crippling. Drone warfare has made these hidden wounds more acute and pervasive among a generation of virtual warriors whose ostensibly diminished stress is belied by the high rate of burnout in the drone program. As the volume of drone strikes has increased, so have the militarys efforts to attend to the mental health of drone warriors.
Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, forty minutes north of Las Vegas, is home to some 900 drone pilots who fly missions with MQ-9 Reapers in numerous theaters of war. Creech also has a group of embedded physiologists, chaplains and psychologists called the Human Performance Team, all of whom possess the security clearances required to enter the spaces where drone pilots do their work, in part so that they can observe what the pilots and sensor operators experience.
A psychologist on the team named Richard said that, two weeks into the job, he poked his head into a ground control station just as the crew was spinning up for a strike. A veteran of the Marine Corps, he felt a surge of adrenaline as he watched the screen flash. Then he put the incident out of mind. A few weeks later, he was at his sons band concert, and as the national anthem played and he peered up at the Stars and Stripes, the memory came back. Im looking up at the flag, but I could see a dead body, he said. He was shaken, but he couldnt say anything to his family because the operation was classified.
Drone warriors shuttle back and forth across such boundaries every day. When their shifts end, the airmen and women drive to their subdivisions alone, like clerks in an office park. One minute they are at war, the next they are at church or picking up their kids from school. A retired pilot, Jeff Bright, who served at Creech for five years, described the bewildering nature of the transition. Id literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy and, 20 minutes later, Id get a text: Can you pick up some milk on your way home? Bright enjoyed serving in the drone program and believed that he was making a difference, but other airmen in his unit struggled to cope with stress, he said. There were divorces and some cases of suicide.
Before the drone personnel at Creech make their way home, some drop by the Airman Ministry Center, a beige building equipped with a foosball table, some massage chairs, and several rooms where pilots and sensor operators can talk with clergy. A chaplain named Zachary told me that what most burdened the airmen he spoke with was not PTSD, it was inner conflicts that weighed on their conscience. He mentioned one pilot he met with, who asked, Im just curious: What is Jesus going to say to me about all the killing Ive done?
Despite their distance from the battlefield, drone operators constant exposure to gut-wrenching things they watched on- screen sometimes resulting directly from their own split-second decisions or from their inability to act could cause them to lose their spiritual bearings and heighten their risk of sustaining a very different kind of battle scar what some psychologists, as well as Zachary, have described as a moral injury.
The term is not new. It appeared in a 1994 book by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay. Shay argued that a persons character unravels when he betrays his sense of whats right, triggering disillusionment and the desire to do things that he himself regarded as bad. Experiencing such disillusionment might not seem as traumatic as coming under enemy fire or seeing a comrade die. However, Shay wrote, Ive come to strongly believe through my work with Vietnam veterans that moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma. Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear and grief once they return to civilian life, so long as whats right has not also been violated.
Fifteen years later, the term moral injury began to appear more frequently in the literature on the psychic wounds of war. A new group of researchers expanded the focus to include the anguish that resulted from perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs, as a 2009 article in the journal Clinical Psychology Review proposed. They defined it as a wound sustained when soldiers wading through the fog of war betrayed themselves, through harmful acts they perpetrated or watched unfold. This definition took shape against the backdrop of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, chaotic conflicts in which it was difficult to distin-guish between civilians and insurgents, and in which the rules of engagement were fluid and gray.
One author of the Clinical Psychology Review article was Shira Maguen, a researcher who began to think about the moral burdens of warfare while counseling veterans at a PTSD clinic in Boston. In many of the cases she observed, the source of distress seemed to lie elsewhere not in attacks by the enemy that veterans had survived, but in acts they had committed that crossed their own ethical lines. I was hearing about experiences where people killed and they thought they were making the right decision, Maguen told me recently, and then they found out there was a family in the car.
To find out how heavy the burden of killing actually was, Maguen, who is now a staff psychologist at the V.A. Medical Center in San Francisco, began combing through databases in which veterans of conflicts dating back to the Vietnam War were asked if they had killed someone while in uniform. In some cases, the veterans were also asked whom they killed combatants, prisoners, civilians. Maguen wanted to see if there might be a relationship between taking another life and debilitating consequences like alcohol abuse, relationship problems, outbursts of violence, PTSD. The results were striking: Even when control-ling for different experiences in combat, she found, killing was a significant, independent predictor of multiple mental health symptoms and of social dysfunction.
In San Francisco, Maguen convened groups where veterans came together and talked about the killing they had done. In the V.A. no less than in the military, this was a taboo subject, so much so that clinicians often refer to it euphemistically, if at all. The veterans in Maguens groups didnt speak much about fear and hyperarousal, emotions linked to PTSD. Mostly, they expressed guilt and self-condemnation. You feel ashamed of what you did, one said. Others described feeling unworthy of forgiveness and love. The passage of time did little to diminish these moral wounds, Maguen found.
The meaning and magnitude of moral injury remains contested. It is not widely accepted by the military or the psychological community, said Wayne Chappelle, of the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The idea that war may be morally injurious is a charged and threatening one to many people in the military. Chappelle described moral injury as intentionally doing something that you felt was against what you thought was right, like the wanton abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The definition used by researchers like Maguen is, to the military, potentially more subversive: Moral injury is sustained by soldiers in the course of doing exactly what their commanders and society ask of them.
By the time I met Christopher Aaron, now 37, he had spent several years recuperating from his experience in the drone program. We first talked in a pub, not far from where he was living at the time. We spoke for two hours and agreed to continue talking over lunch the next day. On my way to that appointment, my cellphone rang. It was Aaron, calling to reschedule. Our meeting the previous day had triggered a flood of anxiety, aggravating the pain in his back during the night.
It was around this time that his manager asked him if he wanted to obtain resident C.I.A. employment status and become a career intelligence officer, which required taking a lie-detector test used to screen employees. Aaron said yes, but halfway through the test, after losing circulation in his arms and feeling hectored by the questions, he got up and abruptly left. The next day, Aaron told his manager that he had reconsidered. Instead, he went back to work in a field where he could easily land a job with a military-and-intelligence contractor.
By then, Aarons idealism had waned. It receded further when, at the end of 2008, the contractor sent him back to Afghanistan. The first time he was there in 2006, the war on terror seemed to be hastening the defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now it seemed to Aaron not only that progress had stalled, but that things were sliding backward. We were actually losing control of vast areas of the country, he said, even as the number of drone strikes was four or five times higher than before. The escalation under President Obama had begun.
As his disillusionment deepened, events that Aaron dismissed before as unavoidable in any war began to weigh more heavily on him. He recalled days when the visual feed was too grainy or choppy to make out exactly who was struck. He remembered the times when he would be asked to give an assessment of a compound in a remote region of the country where they had suspicion there was a low-level Taliban commander. They come and say: Were getting ready to drop a bomb on there. Are there any people other than the Taliban commander in this compound? Id just say no because they dont want to hear I dont know. And then two days later, when they have the funeral procession in the streets that we could observe with the Predators, youd see, as opposed to carrying one coffin through the streets, theyre carrying three coffins through the streets.
Aaron kept his misgivings mainly to himself, but his friends noticed a change in him, among them Chris Mooney, who picked him up at the airport when he returned from Afghanistan in 2009. He and Aaron had been friends since college, when Aaron exuded confidence and enthusiasm. At the airport, Mooney could scarcely recognize his friend. He was emotionally flat, his face a solemn mask. They went to dinner, where Mooney knew that something was seriously wrong. It wasnt the same guy, he said.
In the early 1970s, some psychiatrists listened to soldiers talk about incidents of close-range killing at rap groups organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Until this point, soldiers bearing psychic wounds tended to be dismissed by the military as cowards and malingerers. When PTSD was officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, many hoped it would lead society to reckon more honestly with the ethical chaos of war.
The first definition included not only survivors guilt but also guilt about behavior required for survival among the potential symptoms, language that addresses acts soldiers perpetrated that went against their own moral codes.
When the drone program was created, it seemed to promise to spare soldiers from the intensity and the danger of close-range combat. But waging war remotely can be unsettling in other ways. In conventional wars, soldiers fire at an enemy who has the capacity to fire back at them. They kill by putting their own lives at risk. But what happens when the risks are entirely one-sided?
Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, fears that remote warfare erodes the warrior ethic, which holds that combatants must assume some measure of reciprocal risk. If you give the warrior, on one side or the other, complete immunity and let him go on killing, hes a murderer, he said, because youre killing people not only that youre not necessarily sure are trying to kill you. Youre killing them with absolute impunity.
Langley Air Force Base in Virginia is home to part of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, a unit of 6,000 deployed in place cyberwarriors. According to a recent study by a team of embedded Air Force researchers who surveyed personnel at three different bases, nearly one in five I.S.R. analysts said they felt directly responsible for the death of an enemy combatant on more than 10 occasions. One analyst told the researchers, Some of us have seen, read, listened to extremely graphic events hundreds and thousands of times.
Over all, I.S.R. personnel reported pride in their mission, particularly supporting successful protection of U.S. and coalition forces, the survey found. But many also struggled with symptoms of distress emotional numbness, difficulty relating to family and friends, trouble sleeping, and intrusive memories of mission-related events, including images that cant be unseen.
Two members of the I.S.R. Wing described to me how changed they were by their work. Steven, who had a boyish face and sensitive eyes, is originally from a small town in the South and joined the military straight out of high school. Four years later, he told me, he no longer reacted emotionally to news of death, even after his grandmother recently died. The constant exposure to killing had numbed him. Youre seeing more death than you are normal things in life, he said. He watched countless atrocities committed by ISIS. What troubled him most was not bearing witness to vicious acts committed by enemy forces, but decisions he had made that had fatal consequences. Even if the target was a terrorist, its still weird taking another life, he said.
For Christopher Aaron, the hardest thing to come to terms with was that a part of him had enjoyed wielding this awesome power that hed found it, on some level, exciting. In the years that followed, as his mood darkened, he withdrew, sinking into a prolonged period of shame and grief. He avoided seeing friends and had no interest in intimate relationships. He struggled with quasi-suicidal thoughts, he told me, and with facing the depth and gravity of his wounds, a reckoning that began in earnest only in 2013, when he made his way to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. to attend a veterans retreat run by a former machine-gunner in Vietnam.
The discussion groups he sat in on, where veterans cried openly as they talked about their struggles, were no more uplifting. But for the first time since leaving the drone program, Aaron felt that he didnt have to hide his true feelings. Every morning, he and the other veterans would begin the day by meditating together. At lunch, they ate side by side in silence, a practice called holding space. In the evenings, he drifted into a deep sleep, unperturbed by dreams. It was the most peaceful sleep hed had in years.
At the Omega Institute, Aaron struck up a friendship with a Vietnam vet from Minnesota, whom he later invited up to Maine. In the fall of 2015, at this friends suggestion, he went to a meeting in Boston of Veterans for Peace. Soon thereafter, he began to talk about things hed experienced with members of the group and later at some interfaith meetings. At one meeting, Aaron mentioned that he and his colleagues used to wonder if they were playing a game of whack-a-mole, killing one terrorist only to see another pop up in his place. He had come to see the drone program as an endless war whose short-term successes only sowed more hatred in the long term, while siphoning resources to military contractors that profited from its perpetuation.
Peter Yeomans, a clinical psychologist who trained with Shira Maguen, has developed an experimental treatment for moral injury rooted in the sharing of testimonials, initially at weekly meetings where veterans come together to talk among themselves and later at a public ceremony that the participants invite members of the community to attend. One goal of the treatment is to help veterans unburden themselves of shame. Another is to turn them into moral agents who can deliver the truth about war to their fellow citizens and, in turn, broaden the circle of responsibility for their conduct.
In early May, I attended a ceremony in a small chapel on the third floor of the V.A. Medical Center in Philadelphia, where Yeomans now works. Seated on a stage in the chapel were a number of veterans, some of whom gave their personal testi-monials. Then Chris Antal, a Unitarian Universalist minister who ran the weekly meetings with Yeomans, invited members of the audience to form a circle around the veterans who had spoken and deliver a message of reconciliation to them. Several dozen people came forward and linked arms. We sent you into harms way, began the message that Antal recited and that the civilians encircling the veterans repeated. We put you into situations where atrocities were possible. We share responsibility with you: for all that you have seen; for all that you have done; for all that you have failed to do, they said.
Yeomans and Antal told me over dinner afterward that they believe audience participation in the ceremony was crucial. Moral injury, they pointed out, is as much about societys avoidance and denial as it is about the ethical burdens that veterans bear. Antal added that, in his opinion, grappling with moral injury requires reckoning with how Americas military campaigns have harmed not only soldiers, but also Iraqis and civilians in other countries.
For Antal, broadening the scope to include these civilians is both a spiritual mission and a personal one. He bears a moral injury of his own, sustained when he was serving as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan. While there, he attended transfer ceremonies in which the coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers were loaded onto transport planes to be sent home. During one such ceremony, held at Kandahar Airfield, Antal noticed drones taking off and landing in the distance and felt a flicker of conscience. The contrast between the dignity of the ceremony, during which the fallen soldiers name was solemnly announced as Taps was played, and the secrecy of the drone campaign, whose victims were anonymous, jarred him. I felt something break, he told me. In April 2016, he resigned his commission as a military officer, explaining in a letter to President Obama that he could not support a policy of unaccountable killing that granted the executive branch the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, for secret reasons.
The secrecy of the drone program makes it riskier for people who have served in it to share their stories. Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer for national-security whistle-blowers who has worked with Aaron, told me that several former drone operators she represents have suffered retaliation for talking about their experiences. One client had his house raided by the F.B.I. and was placed under criminal investigation after speaking on camera to a filmmaker.
After Aaron began speaking publicly about his own past, someone hacked into his email and his cellphone, and a stream of anonymous threats began flooding his inbox. The hostile messages, calling him scum and warning him to shut his big blabbermouth, were also sent to his father, whose email was likewise hacked. The barrage of threats eventually prompted Aaron to hire a lawyer to try to identify who was behind the harassment and to contact both the F.B.I. and the police.
The experience left Aaron shaken. But in recent months, he has begun to recover. He is now gainfully employed as an analyst of gold and other precious metals, a hobby he has turned into a vocation. He has started to reach out again to friends like Chris Mooney. His physical pain has mostly gone away, thanks in part to the regimen of yoga and meditation that he maintains. He still has his share of violent dreams, but he appears to have recaptured what for many years he had lost his sense of moral purpose and clarity.
Not long ago, Aaron was invited to speak at an event organized by a branch of the Mennonite Church titled Faithful Witness in a Time of Endless War. It took place on the campus of a school in Lansdale, Pa., in a small auditorium whose stage was festooned with peace quilts. Aaron approached the lectern in a brown blazer with a somber expression. He reached forward to adjust the microphone and thanked the events organizers for inviting him to tell his story. Before sharing it, he asked for a moment of silence, for all of the individuals that I killed or helped to kill.
edited from an
article by Eyal Press, The New York Times, June 13, 2018
PeaceMeal, July/August & Sept/October 2018)
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Anti-war congressman works to remember the dead
WASHINGTON As a young psychiatrist assigned to the Long Beach Naval Station in California in 1968, Washington state Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott worked to ease the psychological trauma of soldiers who had learned to kill in Vietnam. I knew that people were going to forget about these kids, said McDermott, now 79. The most moving place in town for me is still the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I go out there and I can cry almost any time.
As he prepares to end his 28-year career in the U.S. House, the Seattle congressman now wants to make sure that the Washington state soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 14 years are not forgotten. There are 150 of them.
As they died, McDermott added their photographs one-by-one to a wall display just outside his Capitol Hill office. The 150th face joined the display on January 12, four days after the remains of Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, a 30-year-old Green Beret from Des Moines, Wash., arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
McDermott made the trek to Delaware for the ceremony, offering his condolences to McClintocks wife, Alexandra, and the couples 3-month-old son, Declan, his hand on his heart as he watched the flag-draped casket move past him.
In a speech on the House floor on January 12, McDermott called McClintock a promising, smart and steadfast young man who deserved the nations gratitude.
I do what I can for veterans, McDermott said in an interview in his office. People have forgotten the war is there.
McDermott, a 14th-term congressman first elected in 1988, is surprised that his photo display has gotten so large. But he said its important to keep it up to date, hopeful that passers-by will stop and reflect.
Youre looking at something I started in 2002, and here I am 14 years later, McDermott said. Ive always been anti-war but pro-veterans, because we all love to go to the parades when they march off to war, but we dont want to see much when they come home, like this kid that came home at Dover. Thats what wars about. People come home like this.
McClintock was killed on January 5 in Afghanistans Helmand province, part of the National Guards 19th Special Forces Group. Earlier, he had served in Joint Base Lewis-McChords 1st Special Forces Group as a Green Beret.
When his remains arrived at Dover AFB, McDermotts chief of staff, Diane Shust, was on the plane as soldiers carried the casket down the steps to meet family members on the runway. When they started coming down with the casket, I heard this horrible shriek, she said. As a mother, I knew exactly who it was. It was so heart-wrenching. When you see the casket, its real.
In 2004, McDermott criticized the Pentagon for not allowing photographs of coffins at Dover, saying Americans had a right to see them, both to help them grieve and understand the cost of war.
In Vietnam, the war came into the living room and the dinner table, and thats what stopped the war, McDermott said. And now with Iraq, suddenly they dont want anyone to see a picture. Well, goddammit, you know, people should know.
He has been a loud voice against war, even when there were no listeners. In 2002, he and other anti-war progressives held a press conference on the steps of the House Cannon Office Building. McDermott was ready to make big news, saying that then-President George W. Bush was so eager to go to war in Iraq that he would lie about whether military action was needed. But he said the Capitol Hill press corps showed no interest, with his comments never appearing anywhere.
McDermott did get national attention when he went to Baghdad and stood on a rooftop to make the point to ABC TVs George Stephanopoulos. His remarks drew quick rebukes from Republicans who were trying to pass a war resolution and earned McDermott the nickname Baghdad Jim.
All these years later, McDermott has little doubt that he was right to oppose the war. Are we safer today because we invaded Iraq? he asked.
McDermott said he does have one regret: voting for the war in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Its one of the few votes I would have done the other way, he said. I didnt think it would last this long.
Weve created havoc all over the Middle East and weve lost thousands of people, he said. So its easy here, if you dont think about it, to vote for money for the military and send people out there because its none of our kids.
He said Congress would have less appetite for war if members brought back the military draft.
McClatchyDC, March 2, 2016
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2016
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U.S. courts should consider war trauma of veterans on death row, study says
U.S. military veterans make up about 10 percent of inmates on death row and courts are not doing enough to consider post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mitigating factor in sentencing, a study released November 10 by the Death Penalty Information Center said. The study was based on data from states holding half the U.S. death row population. The Center is opposed to capital punishment, but its data is used by those on both sides of the debate.
About 300 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on Americas state and federal death rows are military veterans, and the majority suffers PTSD from serving in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars, according to the study. Defense lawyers frequently fail to realize when their client is a veteran, according to the reports author, Richard Dieter.
If you have intellectual disabilities you cant get the death penalty; if youre under 18 you cant get the death penalty. With PTSD, you can get the death penalty, and sometimes it can be used against you, Dieter said.
About 31 percent of Vietnam War veterans and 10 percent of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD, according to the National Institutes of Health. Neither the Defense Department nor the Justice Departments Bureau of Justice Statistics track veterans on death row.
Death sentences and executions have decreased substantially in the United States over the past 15 years, with just 73 death sentences handed down in 2014 the lowest number in the four decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. The decline is due in part to the high costs of trial and appeals, with prosecutors in several states steering clear of cases where mental illness may be a factor because of the likelihood of a lengthy and expensive legal process.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Korean War veteran who killed an ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend, finding his attorney deficient for not investigating the veterans combat service and mental illness. But Georgia this year executed a Vietnam War veteran who qualified for 100 percent disability due to PTSD, Dieter said.
Dieter hopes his report will trigger closer scrutiny of how the death penalty is used against veterans.
edited from Reuters,
November 10, 2015
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2015
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Veterans frustrated by presidential debate on Iraq war
Veterans of the Iraq War have been watching in frustration as Republican presidential contenders distance themselves from the decision their party enthusiastically supported to invade that country. Some veterans say they concluded long ago that their sacrifice was in vain, and are annoyed that a party that lobbied so hard for the war is now running from it. Others say they still believe their mission was vital, regardless of what the politicians say. And some find the gotcha question being posed to the politicians Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded? an insult in itself.
The war became a campaign issue when likely presidential contender Jeb Bush was asked about the invasion ordered by his brother, former President George W. Bush. After days of questioning, Jeb Bush said that in light of whats now known that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD stockpiles he would not have invaded. Other possible Republican hopefuls, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, all later gave similar responses.
Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton has previously called her support for the invasion a mistake. And despite the militants gains, she said, U.S. ground forces should not be sent back to Iraq.
But many vets, regardless of whether WMDs were found or not, found legitimate reasons for being in Iraq. Kevin McCulley, a former army medic, said Iraqis told him about their struggles under Saddam Hussein, and he believes there were good reasons to get rid of the longtime dictator. He thinks the emphasis should not be on the decision to invade but on whether the U.S. should have stayed past its 2011 departure date to secure the gains made.
Many veterans blame President Obama not Bush for the current state of affairs, saying he was in too much of a hurry to withdraw from Iraq.
The discussion comes at a particularly troubled time for veterans, who have watched Iraq steadily descend into chaos. Islamic State militants recently routed Iraqi government troops to take control of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, despite American airstrikes designed to help the Iraqi forces.
Aaron Hinde, 33, is appalled at what he sees the U.S. invasion did to Iraq. He served there in 2003, mostly in the volatile city of Mosul, and became active in the anti-war movement after leaving the army in 2004. Hes glad Republicans are being held account-able for the invasion, but says that answer has been known for a long time. He said, Its a legitimate question to ask and a legitimate answer should be an unequivocal no.
Marla Keown, who drove trucks in Iraq for a year during her time in the Army Reserve, said its taken too long for politicians to admit the mistake of a war that killed 4,491 U.S. troops and left countless Iraqis dead. Keown, 34, who now works as a photo-grapher in Denver, said, Its hard to see the good in war in general let alone a war that everyone just now is realizing we shouldnt have done.
A mistake doesnt sum up the gravity of that decision, said Matt Howard, a Marine twice deployed to Iraq who now works with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. He said many vets have been frustrated by the flip-flopping of the Republican candidates and Clinton as well.
Mike Barbero, a retired general who served three tours in Iraq, said he isnt sure of the value of the hypothetical questions being asked of the candidates and would rather they be pressed on their criteria for sending troops into a potential future battle. What are your criteria for putting young Americans in harms way? What lessons learned did you take away from Iraq and Afghanistan? he said. Then youre getting into the mind of a future commander-in-chief.
edited from an
article by Rebecca Santana, The Associated Press, May 23, 2015
PeaceMeal, March/April 2015
Almost 500 serving U.S. military personnel committed suicide in 2013
Almost 500 serving members of the U.S. military took their own lives in 2013, a many of them thought to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to an official report from the U.S. Department of Defense. Although the overall figure represents a drop from 2012, when the total number of suicides was 522, there are fears the final total for 2014 could rise again as the rate increased in the first half of the year.
The figures for serving soldiers are dwarfed by those for former soldiers. Around 6,500 former members of the U.S. armed forces kill themselves each year.
In the U.K. in 2012, seven serving soldiers were confirmed to have taken their own lives and a further 14 suicides were suspected. It is unclear why the rate is so much lower than in the U.S., though easy access to firearms may be one possibility.
International Business Times, Jan. 18, 2014
PeaceMeal, March/April 2015
Brian Castner appeared unscathed alter two tours in Iraq. All his wounds were on the inside. As the leader of an Air Force bomb squad, Castner was surrounded by the horror and tension of war. His subsequent struggle to resume everyday life eventually unleashed a frantic state of mind he calls the Crazy.
Castners autobiographical book published in 2012, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, is his attempt to relay those experiences exactly as he felt them. I dont hold your hand for a lot of it, he says.
In the opening pages, Castner gives a raw description of the carnage caused by a car bomb. Thats maybe a little shocking and I have trouble almost seeing that its shocking, Castner says. Its like, Well, duh. What do you think happens?
Castner graduated in 1999 as an electrical engineer from the ROTC program at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc., became an Air Force engineer, and passed a rigorous training program to join the bomb squad. After several close calls in Iraq, he made it home in 2007, only to develop an unshakeable sense of panic that nearly wrecked his family.
Castner was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from his close exposure to blast attacks and suffers from long-term-memory loss. He can remember well the day of six car bombs but cant remember his children being born. Through a combination of therapy, running, yoga and writing he calls telling his story a biological need he eventually learned to manage his trauma.
Today, Castner and his wife, Jessica, a 1999 nursing graduate of Marquette University, live in Buffalo, N.Y., with their four sons. He works as a civilian consultant training military units on bomb-disposal procedures and is writing another book.
edited from Marquette
Magazine and National Public Radio
PeaceMeal, July/August 2013
Wounded veterans congregate in Tacoma
The communities surrounding Tacoma have the highest per capita population of seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on the West Coast, according to Department of Veterans Affairs records. Veterans come to the region for several reasons. Some finish their military careers at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is home to two Stryker brigades deployed in Afghanistan. Some seek medical care at the bases Warrior Transition Battalion before they leave the service. And others stay for the resources at Puget Sound Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, as well as for the regions diverse economy and its generally supportive attitude toward veterans.
They live here because theyre welcome here. I honestly believe that, said retired Army Lt. Col. Jake Holeman, 66, a Vietnam veteran and an officer in a local chapter of Disabled American Veterans.
But even with the goodwill, the presence of thousands of seriously disabled veterans poses new and lasting challenges for the region as it learns to assimilate the generation of service members who bore the brunt of a decade of combat in the Middle East.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said, We have thousands of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the next year and a half, and that could overwhelm the system very quickly.
Policy makers foresee multiple challenges for disabled veterans as the wars end, such as:
Many veterans with severe combat-related stress still face long waits to get the care they need, despite adding billions of dollars for mental health care to Department of Veterans Affairs budgets the last four years, and the hiring of 7,000 more mental health professionals at VA clinics and hospitals. A rule directs that veterans with severe PTSD begin treatment within 14 days of seeking care, but needed therapy gets delayed by weeks or months.
Nearly half of disabled veterans from all generations recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center said their combat injuries prevented them from holding down steady work after they left the service.
About half of homeless veterans have disabilities.
Veterans Affairs data show that some 5,000 seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live in the region around Tacoma. According to VA criteria, a seriously disabled veteran is one who is 50 percent to 100 percent unable to perform his job in the military.
Retired Staff Sgt. Jim Dahl of Des Moines, Wash., is one soldier who settled in the South Puget Sound area as he left the Army because of injuries he suffered in Iraq. Dahl, 43, has wounds to his head, neck, back and legs, but hes considered disabled by the VA because of the PTSD he developed during his deployments.
They didnt expect the war to go on as long as it did, and they didnt expect it to be as violent as it was, Dahl said.
He said Puget Sound VA has treated him well, but he has not yet found counseling he trusts. He avoids anti-depressants and counseling because he finds they do more harm than good. Instead, he tries to live simply, takes cooking classes and is putting together a plan to open a bed and breakfast where veterans can relax by working with horses.
State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, just led a hearing in Olympia in which lawmakers advanced several bills to help veterans land on their feet when they leave the service. Shed like to expand social services for former service members to access immediately after they leave the military. That can be a vulnerable period because it can take months for veterans to figure out how to get what they need from the VA.
The safety net for those veterans is not nearly what its going to need to be for the men and women coming back, Orwall said. Its pretty scary.
edited from The News
Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.), Dec. 5, 2011
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2011
Ex-Marine, veterans advocate kills himself
Handsome and friendly, Clay Hunt so epitomized a vibrant Iraq veteran that he was chosen for a public service announcement that told veterans that they arent alone. The 28-year-old former Marine corporal earned a Purple Heart and returned to combat in Afghanistan. Upon his return home, he lobbied for veterans on Capitol Hill, road-biked with wounded veterans and performed humanitarian work in Haiti and Chile. Then, on March 31, Hunt bolted himself in his Houston apartment and shot himself.
Hunts death has shaken many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who knew him wonder why someone who seemed to be doing all the right things to deal with combat-related issues is now dead. Friends and family say he was wracked with survivors guilt, depression and other emotional struggles after combat. But with his boundless energy and countless friends, he came across as an example of how to live life after combat.
But some knew he was grieving over several close friends in the Marines who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was very despondent about why he was alive and so many people he served with directly were not alive, said John Wordin, 48, the founder of Ride 2 Recovery, a program that uses bicycling to help veterans heal physically and mentally.
In 2007, while in Iraq with the Marines 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, Hunt heard over the radio that his 20-year-old bunkmate had died in a roadside bombing. Hunt later wrote online about sleeping in his bunkmates bed. I just wanted to be closer to him, I guess. But I couldnt he was gone.
A month later, Hunt was pinned by enemy fire in his truck as a fellow Marine, shot in the throat by a sniper, lay nearby. Hunt wrote that seeing his friend placed in a helicopter, where he died, is a scene that plays on repeat in my head nearly every day, and most nights as well.
Three days later, a snipers bullet missed Hunts head by inches and hit his wrist. He didnt immediately leave Iraq. His parents say Hunt asked to fly to a military hospital in Germany a day later so he could accompany a fellow Marine who was shot in both legs.
I know hes seen some traumatic stuff in his time and I guess he holds that to himself, said Marine Sgt. Oscar Garza, 26, who served with Hunt in Iraq. He was a very compassionate Marine, a very passionate person, one of the few people that I know that has a big heart and feels a lot of peoples pain and makes it his own.
Hunts mother Susan Selke said after he was wounded, shed hoped her son would get out of the military. Instead, he went to school to be a scout-sniper and went to Afghanistan. He seemed to do well. He was honorably discharged in 2009, married and enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
But Hunt was frustrated by the Veterans Affairs Departments handling of his disability claim. He also piled up thousands of dollars in credit card debt as he waited for his GI Bill payments. Hunt found an outlet to help improve the system by doing work with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He had appeared in the groups ads encouraging veterans to seek support from an online network of fellow veterans. He also helped build bikes for Ride 2 Recovery and participated in long rides.
If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms, Hunt wrote in an online testimonial for a nonprofit organization. "No matter how great or small your service is, it is desired and needed by the world we live in today.
Last year, Hunts life took a downward spiral. His marriage ended, he dropped out of school and he began to have suicidal thoughts, his mother said. She said Hunt sought counseling from the VA and moved in temporarily with Wordin in California. Things seemed to improve for him in recent months after he returned to his hometown of Houston to be near family. He got a construction job, leased an apartment, bought a truck and began dating. In the days before he died, he hung out with friends. He even told Garza he couldnt wait to see him at a Fourth of July reunion with other Marines. Then he was dead.
Hunts friends say he was an idealist and voiced frustration that he couldnt make changes overnight. He also questioned why troops were still dying. Jacob Wood, 27, a friend who served with Hunt in the Marines and in Haiti, said, He really was looking for someone to tell him what it was he went over to do and why those sacrifices were made.
edited from MSNBC and the Associated Press, April 15, 2011
PeaceMeal, May/June 2011
Comment left by daryl on newsvine.com
Too many put a flag lapel pin on their suit or a yellow ribbon decal on their SUV and call themselves patriots. Politicians of all stripes who have never seen a day of true service claim their positions of power to be patriotic. I have yet to see one I would agree with. The religiously obsessed claim that their god created this country and that only through paying their religious leaders both in money and obeisance can one be a patriot.
This man and those who serve and risk their lives for the rest of us are the only true patriots Ive ever seen. I do not blame anyone for his death. Yet I wish that we humans could learn to love one another in truth, not just in false words. If we followed our words and showed the love for all that we brag about, we would have no need of war or warriors, and people like this man and so many others would be around today to share their true honor and greatness with the rest of us.
Fighting for peace of mind
On Veterans Day 2010, Army Specialist Jeff Hanks made headlines when he turned himself in to military officials after going AWOL in October. Hanks, a 101st Airborne soldier, refused to return to Afghan-istan after being denied treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he has suffered since his 2008 tour in Iraq. The penalty he faces could include jail time or a less-than-honorable discharge, which would strip him of all veterans rights and health benefits.
Hanks decision to speak out about his struggle to secure mental health care drew attention to the Operation Recovery campaign of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which aims to stop the redeployment of traumatized soldiers suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and sexual trauma. One in every 10 soldiers who has completed a single deployment has a mental ailment; the rate rises to 1 in 5 after a second deployment and nearly 1 in 3 after a third. Studies estimate anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of all service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan 15,000 to 75,000 troops suffer from PTSD. Another major military problem is that veterans with PTSD are six times more likely to attempt suicide than civilians.
If the U.S. military followed its own standards and regulations, says IVAWs Aaron Hughes, a minimum of 20 percent of soldiers that have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan could not be redeployed. That would make it practically impossible for the United States to continue its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ultimate goal of IVAW.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that the military has no comprehensive oversight framework to assure that its members are medically and mentally fit for service, or to assess troops mental health conditions when they return. In the current system, a commanding officer has discretion over what happens after a soldier is screened. This means that someone deemed ineligible for deployment by a military mental health professional can still be forced to deploy with severe trauma.
edited from In These
Times, January 2011
PeaceMeal, March/April 2010
More troops killed by suicide than war
According to official figures for the past nine years from the Department of Defense, more U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives than have died in action in either the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Last year alone, more than 330 serving members of the armed forces committed suicide more than the 320 killed in Afghanistan and the 150 in Iraq. Since 2001, when the Bush administration launched the so-called war on terror, there has been a dramatic year-after-year increase in U.S. military suicides, particularly in the Army, which has borne the brunt of fighting abroad. Last year saw the highest total number since such records began in 1980. Prior to 2001, the suicide rate in the U.S. military was lower than that for the general population; now, it is nearly double the national average.
A growing number of these victims have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. What is even more disturbing is that the official figures only count victims of suicide among active service personnel. Not included are the many more veterans officially classed as civilians who take their own lives. It is estimated that the suicide rate among veterans demobilized from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is as high as four times the national average.
The Department of Veteran Affairs calculates that over 6,000 former service personnel commit suicide every year. Many of these men came home to a country they fought for only to find no jobs, their homes repossessed by banks that have enjoyed trillion-dollar bailouts, and broken relationships.
edited from the Gulf
Daily News (Bahrain), January 12, 2010
PeaceMeal, March/April 2010
Rise in troop suicides alarming
While the active-duty military force is expanding, the rate of suicides is growing even faster among all four services, a phenomenon that has alarmed defense officials. According to U.S. Army statistics, the incidence of soldiers attempting suicide has skyrocketed in the years since the start of the Iraq war. In 2008, 140 soldiers on active duty took their own lives, compared with 115 in 2007, 102 in 2006 and 87 in 2005. In addition, there were 2,100 attempted suicides in 2007 more than five a day compared with about 350 suicide attempts in 2002, the year before the Iraq war began.
Many soldiers are now in the midst of their third or fourth combat tour, and Army surveys show that mental health deteriorates with each one. Theyve been exposed to the most corrosive environment known to warfare physically, psychologically, spiritually and morally, said Army Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Part of the problem is a shortage of mental health professionals in the military. Another major problem is the stigma attached to service members who seek counseling and other mental health assistance, according to Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, commanding officer of the Army base at Fort Carson, Colorado. Grahams youngest son, Kevin, 21, committed suicide in June 2003 as an ROTC cadet. Eight months later, Graham considered retiring when his other son, Jeff, was killed by an IED in Iraq.
Until that point, Graham said, he himself thought it was a sign of weakness for a soldier to acknowledge emotional trauma. But guess what? he said. I actually found out what I was putting my family through.
Graham, with his wife, is now active with the Suicide Prevention Action Network. The message is its okay to ask for help, he said. Its a sign of strength and not weakness to come forward.
edited from CNN, NBC
News and The Washington Post
PeaceMeal, May/June 2009
Dear Abby on PTSD
Im a man who feels all alone in the world. ... My girlfriend doesnt understand the living hell of post-traumatic stress from a tour in Iraq, and every time I need comforting, I am pushed away.
The only friends who Im in contact with are her family. Support from my family isnt easy to get. My father, a Vietnam veteran, understands what Im going through, but has told me he chooses to stay away because hes afraid of a possible relapse.
Stressed in Pennsylvania
Consider this: Im not sure that anyone who hasnt been through it or isnt a trained psychotherapist can truly understand the pain of post-traumatic stress. And that is why Im urging you to contact your nearest veterans hospital.
More than in wars past, the military medical system seems to appreciate that a large number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will need professional help to overcome their trauma. Help is available, so please dont wait to reach out for it. And while youre at it, take your father with you, because it appears he could use some help too.
Herald, 22 Nov. 2006
PeaceMeal. Nov/December 2006
A soldier's pain deep inside
by Bob Herbert
Specialist Craig Peter Olander Jr. has the look of a mischievous kid, except that his eyes sometimes telegraph that they've seen too much. And there's a weariness that tends to slip into his voice that seems unusual for someone just 21 years old. Killing can do that to a person. ...
Specialist Olander sustained a number of injuries [in Iraq] ... But his major problems then and now, as he readily acknowledges, "are emotional and psychological." He is filled with guilt. ...
He is also filled with turbulent emotions related to the insurgents that he killed. "I had no hesitation about pulling the trigger," he said. "But the aftermath is what hurt. Before I joined the military, I valued life very much, so taking it was hard. It's confusing trying to figure it out, you know, because sometimes I feel rage toward them.
"But then it becomes a very religious thing, because I wonder, you know, since I've taken these lives, if I'm going to be accepted into heaven. You know, have I done the right thing?"
Specialist Olander is being treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center [on the Bush administration's current list of base closures editor's note].
Bob Herbert is an award-winning columnist for the New York Times, where this article was published on August 8, 2005. For the complete article, see: www.nytimes.com/2005/08/08/opinion/08herbert.html?
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2005