Staff Sergeant Don Hanks had served 15 years in
the U.S. Army before he spent a year running patrols in the heart of Iraq's
Sunni triangle. He said he returned from the conflict a changed man.
"I lost friends over there and some of those friends I'd had for my whole
frickin' adult life," he told IPS. "You're over there at their houses
and barbequing with their kids and you get to know them and their families and
then one day they're not there anymore because of something really bad."
"It's just a really sad experience," he said.
Hanks developed post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that can
emerge after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical
harm occurred or was threatened. A person experiencing PTSD can lose touch with
reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.
"You start to forget shit," he said. "I can't tell you how many
times I'd get up in my house and go into my kitchen or my bathroom or my bedroom
and just forget why I was in the room."
"It started to affect my interpersonal relationships," he added,
"and when that happened, I bottled it up. I didn't go talk to somebody
when I should have because of the stigma, because I didn't want them to know
I was having problems because that is not the sign of a top performer. That
is not the sign of a good soldier."
Hanks said he became completely non-functional. He stopped going to the mall
and other crowded places. He started smoking marijuana to cope with his mental
problems. When he was hospitalized at a military mental institution, he failed
a drug test.
Then the military expelled Don Hanks, a move he did not fight because the alternative
was another tour in Iraq. Formerly stationed in Fort Lewis outside Seattle,
he's just landed a job washing windows in the city's downtown skyscrapers.
"We fought Saddam's regime and we conquered it, but that's not it now,"
he told IPS.
"You can see it," he said. "You can see it in the interpreters
and in the Iraqi Army units that we were training. I don't know. I saw it as
a senseless and tragic waste of life."
Don Hanks' story is hardly unique.
"A lot of guys really want to get out," Garrett Rappenhagen, chairman
of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told IPS. "And the military,
rather than take the responsibility that this guy has actually just fought in
a war and is possibly damaged from that, is just allowing these guys and almost
helping these guys get these discharges just to get out of the military and
get rid of a problem."
The problem, says Rappenhagen, is that soldiers thrown out of the military
for drug and alcohol abuse are often not eligible for veteran's benefits because
they've gotten a less than honorable discharge. That extends not only to health
care, but also to the housing and college education programs usually available
to returning servicemen.
The results, Rappenhagen says, are often tragic.
"In Colorado, there was a woman that I had for Vets4Vets counseling sessions
named Jessica Rich," he said.
A 24-year-old Army reservist, Rich served a tour in Iraq and was diagnosed
with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2004. She received a medical discharge
Her friend, Makayla Crenshaw, who served with Rich in Iraq, told the Denver
Post that Rich couldn't shake some of the memories from war, including witnessing
the suicide of a fellow soldier in Iraq.
"She was having nightmares still, up until this point flashbacks and
anxiety and everything, the whole bucket of fun," Crenshaw said. "She
said it was really hard to get over it because she couldn't get any help from
Rich died last Thursday after a high-speed auto accident on a Colorado interstate
highway. The coroner's report put her blood alcohol level at twice the legal
"She got tanked up and was speeding down the wrong side of the interstate
with no seatbelt and slammed head-on into a Suburban (SUV) that killed her instantly,"
Rappenhagen explained. "So, these things are happening and there's not
a lot being done to treat these soldiers. It's common. Really common."
A recent investigation by McClatchy Newspapers, which analyzed 200 million
records released under the federal Freedom of Information Act and interviewed
numerous mental health experts and returning veterans, found that nearly 100
Veterans Administration clinics provided virtually no mental health care in
It is uncertain exactly what proportion of soldiers currently suffer from PTSD,
but a 2004 study by the Army on the mental health of troops who fought in Iraq
the first of its kind found that about one in eight reported symptoms
of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ironically, at the same time soldiers are leaving the military with combat-related
substance abuse problems, more and more convicted felons are being recruited
into the armed services.
On Wednesday, the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California at
Santa Barbara released a new study finding that the number of felons admitted
into the military had doubled since 2003.
"We found that over the last three years the military has allowed about
106,000 people to enter with troubled histories, including convictions for felonies
and serious misdemeanors as well as illegal drug abuse," the center's director,
Aaron Belkin, told IPS.
Belkin added that a new study commissioned by the center also concludes the
military does not have any special programs to help convicted felons adjust
to military life.
This year, an estimated one in five soldiers being recruited to fight in Iraq
has received some kind of waiver in order to enter the service. Those kinds
of waivers will likely become even more common as President George W. Bush moves
ahead with his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.
(Inter Press Service)