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Letter From Washington: The Invisible Scars Of War

  • Heather Maher

Some 1.5 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposing them to long periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events.

Some 1.5 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposing them to long periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events.

WASHINGTON -- The military establishment in Washington is still trying to come to terms with what happened on May 11 at a U.S. Army base in Iraq called Camp Liberty.

That’s where a U.S. Army sergeant walked into a clinic for troops suffering from stress-related disorders and shot five people dead.

As the news reached Washington, a grim-faced U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates faced reporters.

“I would like to express my horror and deep regret over today’s shooting incident at Camp Liberty in Iraq. I offer my sympathy and my condolences to the families of those who were killed," Gates said.

He continued: "We’re still in the process of gathering information on exactly what happened, but if the preliminary reports are confirmed, such a tragic loss of life at the hands of our own forces is a cause for great and urgent concern. And I can assure you that it will get this department’s highest priority and attention."

President Barack Obama pledged to “press to ensure that [the military] fully [understands] what led to this tragedy,” and has met with Gates to discuss what might have caused 44-year-old Sergeant John Russell – a career Army man who worked as an electronics technician and was just a few weeks from returning home to Texas – to kill five of his fellow soldiers.

His father believes he knows.

'Trained To Kill'

Wilburn Russell, 73, says that his son, who was finishing up his third tour of duty in Iraq, was “broken” by the Army.

After arguing with his superior officer, Russell had been relieved of his responsibilities and ordered to seek psychological counseling. The elder Russell said that order would have upset his son deeply. He was in deep debt back home and the threat of being discharged and losing his Army paycheck would have come as a terrible blow.

The shooting has focused new attention on an issue that has been debated many times in the United States: How much stress can troops in Iraq or Afghanistan endure before their mental health is damaged?
“They trained him to kill,” his father said. So, feeling desperate, John Russell grabbed a gun and took out his anger at staff and patients at the very stress clinic where he was meant to receive help.

The shooting has focused new attention on an issue that has been debated many times in the United States: How much stress can troops in Iraq or Afghanistan endure before their mental health is damaged?

About 1.5 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, and many of them have been exposed to long periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events.

Throughout both wars, the U.S. military, which is stretched thin, has frequently extended the length of duty it requires of its soldiers. The Army has also used what it calls "stop-loss orders," which keep soldiers in their units even after their active-duty commitments are complete. Reservists, who are only part-time military personnel, have been sent overseas against their wishes.

The policy has been widely criticized as a "back-door draft" (Hollywood even made a movie called “Stop Loss”) and is hated by military members who feel they have done their duty.

Direct Link

Army studies and surveys trace a direct link between long deployments and multiple deployments and soaring rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.

As Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has said: "You can send [soldiers] back for a third or fourth time, but you have to understand you are destroying their lives.”

Long before Sergeant John Russell killed five of his fellow troops, the weight of evidence suggested that more soldiers are suffering psychological injuries than physical injuries on the two battlefields.

In 2007, the U.S. Army recorded 140 confirmed suicides, the highest since records were first kept in 1980.

A recent study by the nonprofit research RAND Corporation showed that nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

The study was the first large-scale, nongovernmental assessment of the psychological and cognitive needs of military service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years.

Sign Of Weakness?

Even more depressing than the rate of suffering is the rate of veterans who seek treatment -- less than half. The reasons why vary. But most say they think being treated for psychological illnesses would be a sign of weakness on their career record.

Even among those who do seek help, the RAND study found that only about half get the level of treatment researchers consider "minimally adequate" for their illnesses.

The researchers concluded that a major national effort is needed to expand and improve the capacity of the mental health system to provide effective care to service members and veterans.

The day after the Camp Liberty shootings, the U.S. military announced that it was launching a probe to identify shortcomings in mental health treatment for troops deployed in war zones.

It comes too late for John Russell, whose father can only express his regret.

“I’m sick,” he said, “not just for my son, but for everybody involved. It should have never happened.”

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