For Troops on the Ground, Iraq Might as Well Be Vietnam
The writer was a combat medic in Vietnam. He was also a counselor in the then-Veterans Administration’s, Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Counseling Program. He now is with the Alliance for Security, a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the foundation, log on to www.allianceforsecurity.org.
Anyone who studies how certain kinds of war fighting affect the human psyche would have already figured out what the New England Journal of Medicine reported recently: that “many of our troops in Iraq are struggling” with the dark psychiatric fallout from this conflict.
After surveying thousands of soldiers and Marines, the Journal authors concluded that “roughly one in six show signs of distress—ranging from anxiety, all the way to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder[PTSD].”
For me, a Vietnam veteran and former counselor in the Veterans Administration’s Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Program, the study’s conclusions were predictable and betray a sad truth about the Iraq war. For the boots on the ground, it might as well be Vietnam.
Highly regarded PTSD researcher John P. Wilson of Cleveland State University, who studied the psychological aftereffects of Vietnam, tells me he is also gravely concerned. Wilson sees the Iraq war as a perfect petri dish for culturing residual psychological problems among our troops.
He posits that the rate for various forms of distress in troops engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom combat operations will be even higher than reported in the Journal study—and that they could go as high as 30 percent.
Such dire predictions are supported by an understandable limitation in the Journal study’s methodology. The authors admit their survey included data from troops who had been home from Iraq for “only a few months.” This probably means that their figures are artificially low—they don’t reflect cases that will emerge over time. Some Vietnam veterans didn’t manifest symptoms of PTSD until years after their return to the United States.
“There is a perception in this country that the young people fighting in Iraq will return home, take off their uniforms and pick up where they left off,” Wilson told me. “The relentless stressors during their Iraq deployment tell us that for thousands of them, this isn’t going to happen without therapeutic intervention.”
A table attached to the Journal study suggests that fighting in Iraq mirrors some of the soul-destroying horrors experienced by my generation. Titled “Combat Experiences Reported by Members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps after Deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan,” it is a chilling document and offers the first real taste of what life is like for our country’s troops.
It indicates that of the soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq and surveyed by the investigators, 89 percent and 95 percent, respectively, report having been attacked or ambushed. The vast majority know someone who has been seriously injured or killed; 69 percent of soldiers and 83 percent of Marines saw ill or injured women and children they were unable to help.
Perhaps worst of all, 14 percent of soldiers and 28 percent of Marines reported that they “experienced being responsible for the death of a non-combatant.” The high number of harrowing episodes occurred for troops whose maximum stay in Iraq had been only six to eight months.
What may drive the levels of PTSD far beyond what we saw in Vietnam is the imposition of stop-loss on soldiers who already have witnessed more than their fair share of traumatic and stress-inducing events. Some troops in Iraq will likely end up serving tours far longer than their predecessors in Vietnam.
Underpinning it all is a lesson from Vietnam that it seems this country has yet to learn: It is psychiatric folly to send American troops into combat in service of shaky foreign policy initiatives. Many Iraqi Freedom troops likely carried with them strongly held convictions that they were keeping the world safe from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam was connected to al-Qaida and the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Now that the reasons for their mission are losing credibility, some soldiers will question the legitimacy of being there at all. When this happens, another set of psychological stressors takes hold as soldiers struggle internally to attach a redemptive meaning to their hellish war experience.
For those of us who counseled the psychiatric casualties who came home from Vietnam, it is painful to watch as history repeats itself.
—Army Times, September 20, 2004