We train them to kill or be killed. We render them temporarily amoral when it comes to killing the enemy and defending their fellow soldiers. We send them into battle where they witness horrendous violence. They witness their comrade’s being blowup or incinerated. They kill other human beings. They are called to clean up the aftermath of suicide bombers. They suffer traumatic brain injuries from roadside bombs.
They return home after nominal debriefing. They try to adjust to their former life, not truly realizing that trauma physically changed their brain. They struggle with nightmares and night terrors. They are afraid and angry and can’t quite put their finger on why.
Then, they are called back to active duty and sent into the fray once again. And again. And again. They experience the horrors of war and return home forever scarred and forever changed. Their families don’t understand why they just can’t pick up where they left off before going to war. The soldier often doesn’t understand why he or she can’t pick up where they left off. They bring their war home with them, suffering silently from invisible injuries. They self-medicate with alcohol or drugs and act out in self-destructive, reckless, and sometimes violent ways, and as one veteran put it, “they end up victimizing the very communities and individuals they were once willing to sacrifice their lives to protect.”
Brockton Hunter, an Army veteran and attorney, has written perhaps the most succinct summary of the dilemma that our country faces with returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq:
“In July 2012, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a comprehensive, congressionally mandated report on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military and veteran populations from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It paints a stark picture. According to the IOM report, more than 2.6 million Americans have now served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and up to 20 percent, approximately 500,000, of this new generation of veterans are suffering from PTSD.
In addition to providing a sense of scale for the coming wave, the IOM report acknowledges the long-denied connection between combat trauma and criminal behavior — noting that PTSD rarely exists in a vacuum:
‘Three categories of conditions frequently co-occur with PTSD: psychiatric (depression and substance use disorders), medical (chronic pain, TBI, and spinal-cord injury), and psychosocial (relationship problems, difficulties in social settings, intimate partner violence [IPV], child maltreatment, unemployment or lack of employment, homelessness, and incarceration).’
This overdue official acknowledgment, along with a rapidly growing body of other evidence tying untreated combat trauma to criminal behavior, now allows the case to be made for the simple and obvious proposition — when the United States trains and conditions citizens in the application of lethal violence, then sends them into the horrors of war to perform unimaginable tasks, it should not be a surprise when some bring their wars home with them and act out against their communities.
Like the Vietnam generation before them, suicide rates among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are epidemic. As of late 2012, the active duty military reported an average of more than one suicide per day, more than the United States is losing to combat. Even more shocking, the VA currently estimates that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day, approximately one every 65 minutes.”
When a veteran suffering from PTSD commits a violent crime, some prosecutors and some judges often seek to imprison the offender on the theory that the veteran is dangerous. This approach is myopic at best. The veteran will often leave the jail after serving time in worse condition than when jail time began, or in simply the same condition. PTSD doesn’t simply go away on its own. Untreated, the condition can worsen and lead to more violence. The only way to break the cycle is to first treat the PTSD, and then the substance abuse issue. Healing the wounded warrior should be the first priority. We owe it to these men and women who sacrificed so much for their country. We owe them the chance of becoming whole again.