Thursday, April 9, 2009

support the troops-until you bring them home

Sorry, no drugs or sex in this entry. But this topic still has some personal significance for me. Gianna blogged about this and brought it to my attention, but I just have to say something.

You see, my partner of five years is a heavy combat Vietnam veteran of two and a half tours. When we first got together, he sat me down one night and said, "I want to tell you everything I did during the war." He cried. He said he knew my politics and he didn't want to slip and refer to something later that would make me end our relationship, recoiling from him because he was a "babykiller", in the parlance of some particularly insensitive people in the peace movement of his time. He knew he had participated in atrocities. But he was a 17 year old slum kid when he enlisted, from a gang run neighborhood where you "either got out in a uniform or a box." (Recruiters still prey on that desperation today, setting up shop in urban ghettos and targeting poor young people of color, dangling the hope of a college education and banking on the fact that the kids won't read the small print-- a surprisingly small number of soldiers ever get that subsidized GI Bill ride through school because of new, more stringent qualifications for that "privilege.") For the first time in his life, because he was good at being a soldier, good at leadership skills so that he soon made sergeant, and the people who commanded him, first the Marines and then the Black Ops people who made use of him, made him feel good at something, made him feel special, when before he'd just been one more anonymous street kid. It's easy to manipulate a barely literate teenager from a lower class background who just wants some attention and affirmation. Way too easy.

On his first leave home after his first tour, they put him on a plane back to the States still in muddy combat fatigues. No debriefing, no transitional programming. He was asked to check in his rifle but left with his small arms. As he took a cab back from the airport back to his NYC home, they passed through a huge traffic blocking peace protest. He knew nothing about the peace movement, barely anything about the huge cultural changes of the mid 60s. He'd shipped out in 1965, one of the first wave of Marines. Media censorship in the military was tight and the America he remembered was the Kennedy America, and here were these protesters, in tie dyed fashions he didn't recognize, screaming in one vast roar, condemning him. He got back, said hello to his parents and took off camping in the mountains of upstate New York for the remainder of his leave, so he could be alone.

He couldn't handle what America had become or the consequences of his decision to enlist. As a lower class kid, he had no political vocabulary to make sense of what was happening. But he knew things were deeply wrong when he heard guys in his platoon bragging about raping women, when he saw a soldier shoot a village elder in the back. He was happy in the villages, making small talk with his pidgin Vietnamese and French, watching the children ride their water buffaloes, seeing a communal way of life he had never encountered but felt strangely at home in. "These people just wanted to be left alone to live the life of their village," he told me. Most of the other soldier embarrassed and disgusted him. "I truly found out the meaning of the phrase "the ugly American"--no wonder everyone hates us!" But he couldn't go AWOL either and go home--the home he remembered wasn't even there anymore. He got himself stationed so far North, next to the DMZ, that he had barely any supervision. He went on black ops missions alone with just a radio man (they had picked out and discovered a few soldiers like him who were good cannon fodder for this kind of thing) and tried to make as many of his own moral decisions as he could.

He volunteered for his third tour. He didn't fit in the States, or in the rear. The only place he belonged anymore was the jungle.

Eventually he got wounded and they forced him back to country, though he tried to stay in the Japanese military hospital for as long as he could, selling his plane tickets home a few times. He embarked on a number of lively careers on both sides of the law, smuggler, dealer, art student, fashion photographer, antique trucking company owner...Then one day when he was 35, during a particularly stressful period, the PTSD came down and hit him like a hammer. He blacked out, but they told him later he'd been walking around, swinging a lead pipe at parked cars and screaming at passerbys.

So, I'll get to the point of this long winded, melodramatic account. The point is that in some ways my boyfriend was lucky. His was one of the first signatures on the Agent Orange class action suit, and they had a powerful case and prevailed, getting coverage for the damage they suffered after being exposed to the chemical. He got good treatment for the heavy duty PTSD he suffered from for years, with the VA sending him to this area to a specialized PTSD unit, the best in the country. He eventually qualified for 100% disability benefits for both his physical and psychological injuries.

Young veterans coming home aren't so lucky now. The Valley Advocate predicted at the beginning of the Iraq war that there would only be 1/4 of the resources needed to deal with the number of PTSD cases that could reasonably be predicted in the soldiers coming home. So how would you expect the military, that bastion of fair dealing, to respond when they're faced with the bill now, in the form of thousands of veterans coming home with their most common injuries being a subtle form of brain damage from IEDs and big helpings of PTSD? They get their doctors to fudge things. They invent pre-existing psychological conditions for these men and women when there were none so that they're left without coverage. My boyfriend says they were playing the "pre-existing condition" game back in the Vietnam and post Vietnam era, but as he says, they've gotten better at it. And back then there was still a muckraking independent media that wouldn't let them get away scotfree for Agent Orange conditions, for example. Now we have a media controlled by only three major corporations, a monopolized media that's in bed 24-7 with the Powers That Be. So it's no surprise that an online venue was the first to cover *this* story:

So, we've been hearing about their denials of PTSD diagnoses for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets for some time, but now we have *proof* of orders from above to use these tactics. Proof gathered by a veteran suffering from PTSD with the Army refusing to acknowledge it, in fact.

Here are quotes from the Salon story :

April 8, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- "Sgt. X" is built like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he rode in while in Iraq. He's as bulky, brawny and seemingly impervious as a tank.

In an interview in the high-rise offices of his Denver attorneys, however, symptoms of the damaged brain inside that tough exterior begin to appear. Sgt. X's eyes go suddenly blank, shifting to refocus oddly on a wall. He pauses mid-sentence, struggling for simple words. His hands occasionally tremble and spasm.

For more than a year he's been seeking treatment at Fort Carson for a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the signature injuries of the Iraq war. Sgt. X is also suffering through the Army's confusing disability payment system, handled by something called a medical evaluation board. The process of negotiating the system has been made harder by his war-damaged memory. Sgt. X's wife has to go with him to doctor's appointments so he'll remember what the doctor tells him.

But what Sgt. X wants to tell a reporter about is one doctor's appointment at Fort Carson that his wife did not witness. When she couldn't accompany him to an appointment with psychologist Douglas McNinch last June, Sgt. X tucked a recording device into his pocket and set it on voice-activation so it would capture what the doctor said. Sgt. X had no idea that the little machine in his pocket was about to capture recorded evidence of something wounded soldiers and their advocates have long suspected -- that the military does not want Iraq veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD, a condition that obligates the military to provide expensive, intensive long-term care, including the possibility of lifetime disability payments. And, as Salon will explore in a second article Thursday, after the Army became aware of the tape, the Senate Armed Services Committee declined to investigate its implications, despite prodding from a senator who is not on the committee. The Army then conducted its own internal investigation -- and cleared itself of any wrongdoing.

When Sgt. X went to see McNinch with a tape recorder, he was concerned that something was amiss with his diagnosis. He wanted to find out why the psychologist had told the medical evaluation board that handles disability payments that Sgt. X did not, in fact, have PTSD, but instead an "anxiety disorder," which could substantially lower the amount of benefits he would receive if the Army discharged him for a disability. The recorder in Sgt. X's pocket captured McNinch in a moment of candor.
"OK," McNinch told Sgt. X. "I will tell you something confidentially that I would have to deny if it were ever public. Not only myself, but all the clinicians up here are being pressured to not diagnose PTSD and diagnose anxiety disorder NOS [instead]." McNinch told him that Army medical boards were "kick[ing] back" his diagnoses of PTSD, saying soldiers had not seen enough trauma to have "serious PTSD issues."

"Unfortunately," McNinch told Sgt. X, "yours has not been the only case ... I and other [doctors] are under a lot of pressure to not diagnose PTSD. It's not fair. I think it's a horrible way to treat soldiers, but unfortunately, you know, now the V.A. is jumping on board, saying, 'Well, these people don't have PTSD,' and stuff like that."

...McNinch told Salon that the pressure to misdiagnose came from the former head of Fort Carson's Department of Behavioral Health. That colonel, an Army psychiatrist, is now at Fort Lewis in Washington state. "This was pressure that the commander of my Department of Behavioral Health put on me at that time," he said. Since McNinch is a civilian employed by the Army, the colonel could not order him to give a specific, lesser diagnosis to soldiers. Instead, McNinch said, the colonel would "refuse to concur with me, or argue with me, or berate me" when McNinch diagnosed soldiers with PTSD. "It is just very difficult being a civilian in a military setting."

McNinch added that he also received pressure not to properly diagnose traumatic brain injury, Sgt. X's other medical problem. "When I got there I was told I was overdiagnosing brain injuries and now everybody is finding out that, yes, there are brain injuries," he recalled. McNinch said he argued, "'What are we going to do about treatment?' And they said, 'Oh, we are just counting people. We don't plan on treating them.'"...

When McNinch learned he would be quoted in a Salon article, he cut off further questions. He also said he would deny the interview took place. Salon, however, had recorded the conversation.

On the tape and in his interview with Salon, McNinch seemed to admit what countless soldiers not just at Fort Carson but across the Army have long suspected: At least in some cases, the Army tries to avoid diagnoses of PTSD...

"Each diagnosis is an acknowledgment that psychiatric casualties are a huge price tag of this war," said [David Rudd, the chairman of Texas Tech's department of psychology and a former Army psychologist]. "It is easiest to dismiss these casualties because you can't see the wounds. If they change the diagnosis they can dismiss you at a substantially decreased rate."...

There is some evidence that Sgt. X's experience with McNinch represents part of a broader scandal, as suggested by the former Army psychiatrist who told Salon about identical problems at another post. Last year, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released an e-mail from Norma Perez, a psychologist in Texas, to staff at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility there. In addition to the Army, that department also provides veterans with benefits. "Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out," Perez wrote in the e-mail dated March 20, 2008. She suggested the staff "consider a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder." As opposed to those with PTSD, veterans with adjustment disorder, a temporary condition, typically do not receive disability payments from the government...

Do read the rest of the story to find out about soldiers plastered with insulting "personality disorders" so that the Army and the VA can avoid that expensive admission of PTSD, and to find a link to another Salon article which identified a pattern of medical officials searching to pin soldiers' problems on childhood trauma instead of combat stress at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Salon also promises that it will "explore Thursday how the Army was made aware of Sgt. X's tape, how the Senate Armed Services Committee declined to conduct an investigation, and how the Army absolved itself of any blame for wrongdoing."

I feel it is vital for the peace movement to support the troops in a way that many hawks never do--that is, we should recognize in our leftist analysis that what the army calls enlistment is little better than a subtle draft, determined by conditions of poverty that leave young people thinking there are no other options for them to leave their desperate environments. And how many options are there? Arise for Social Justice, a low income rights organization I worked in for years, tried to run an educational program letting high school students in Springfield, MA ghettos know about all the consequences of enlistment before a recruitment official glitzed the military up for them. We also tried to offer them other options. The problem was, there weren't that many other options.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't hold low ranking soldiers accountable for their actions during wartime. But if you want to focus your rage at the wars, focus it at the decision makers, the politicians and the defense industry bigwigs and the privileged West Point educated generals light years away from knowing what the privates and non-commissioned officers experience on the ground.

Let me use a dirty pinko commie freak word here and remind you all that the soldiers from poor backgrounds that the military focuses its pitch on deliberately, who are hoodwinked into traumatic combat situations, are just as much victims of *capitalism* as the populations of countries we invade with our new brand of American Imperialism. and the many others in the Third World our corporations work to death in sweat shops.

Veteran's rights should always be a progressive issue.


  1. that is, we should recognize as leftist that what the army calls enlistment is little better than a subtle draft, determined by conditions of poverty that leave young people thinking there are no other options for them to leave their desperate environments.

    that's spot on

    I'm enjoying your work Caty...gotta get back to you on the linkage stuff...but I hate explaining crap like that in we've got a problem!

    I'll try to get around to it.

  2. I could read about your partner's vietnam stories all day.

  3. That was really compelling writing.

  4. Who are you, scissorbeatsrock? The pseudonym sounds so familiar--where we lj friends?

  5. The Iraq invasion makes explicit the implicit classism of the Vietnam War--the not-so-privileged doing the dirty work for the few who stand to profit by it. And, the shoddy treatment of vets of all post-WWII military actions underscores their disposability for the powers-that-be.