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Monday, May 15, 2006

The Courier: Iraq War Veterans' Unique Experiences

Continuing in the footsteps of its local media peers, The Waterloo/Cedar Falls [IA] Courier delivers an informative bit of reporting highlighting the unique flavor of combat found in Iraq vs. that of other battlefields in history.

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From the Courier:

In war, bad things happen. That is unchanged throughout history. Just as surely, each confrontation introduces twists previously unimagined. "Every conflict has unique departures from the conventional definition of what warfare is," says Martin Edwards, a counselor in Cedar Falls.

World War I offered chemical weapons --- chlorine and mustard gas. World War II conjured the kamikaze pilot, concentration camps and the atomic bomb. And now there is Iraq, which offers unusual conditions all its own. High on the list is the fact soldiers must maintain an unprecedented degree of vigilance.

The idea of a front is archaic. Battle can occur anywhere. Improvised explosive devices and other acts of terrorism --- including kidnapping --- threaten everywhere. "One of the things coming out of this particular war is that the enemy is particularly hard to find, even more so than Vietnam," says Edwards, a military veteran of that era.

Consequently, troops have no place to let down their guard and are under constant stress. A study in 2004 found 62 percent of soldiers in Iraq said they encountered threatening situations but could not react as aggressively as wanted. One reason for restraint is concern about injuring or killing innocent bystanders. "There really was no safe place," says Ron DeVoll Jr. of Cedar Falls.

More differences: an enemy who wears regular clothes; deadly convoys that in previous wars may have been relatively secure; and the statistic that 94% of Iraq veterans have come under small-arms fire while deployed.

"There are no safe jobs if you're in the theater of operations," DeVoll says. Advances in technology to protect troops --- and in medicine to treat the wounded --- are welcome. However, one result in Iraq is the highest wounded to killed-in-action ratio in U.S. military history, according to a second study from 2004. Soldiers who died on the battlefield in previous wars are surviving. And those survivors are likely to face mental health issues, Edwards asserts. "If they have a traumatic injury, there's a real good chance they will have PTSD," he says.

Brett Litz, an associate director at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, explains the significance for witnesses, too. In an article on the center's Web site, Litz writes being part of violence and death raises the risk for anxiety, anger, aggressive behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Iraq, a high percentage of troops are engaging the enemy. Research, according to Litz, shows 77 percent of soldiers in Iraq fired a weapon in combat. About 50 percent killed an enemy. And about 30 percent claimed responsibility for killing a bystander.

The physical stresses on the body are noteworthy, too:

"New technologies have significantly increased the range, reduced the time and changed the conditions over which battles are fought," reads Field Manual 6-22.5, a document distributed by the U.S. Marine Corps.

Machines allow combat at night and during inclement weather, periods soldiers in previous eras might have had time to rest. Mechanization, however, carries unintended consequences. "A Service member is not a machine and is, therefore, the weak link in the chain," the Marines' manual states. "The equipment can operate longer than the Service member who operates it, as the Service member must have sleep."

DeVoll says during the 21-day race to Baghdad he routinely performed for up to 72 hours at a time without sleep. For 45 days he was unable to remove his chemical suit or bathe. In the end, DeVoll says medics removed his socks with scissors because they were imbedded in his flesh. "It's like you're a zombie. You're so burned out. You're there, but you are [not] there," DeVoll says.

Litz writes about what he calls "the extensive and extended sacrifice made by soldiers, especially National Guard and reserve troops," as a unique factor in the war on terrorism. How guardsmen and reservists may react remains an open question, however. "Unfortunately, we don't know. But we can expect some difficulties," Litz said. He bases his opinion on the fact guardsmen and reservists train differently than active duty soldiers. And the fact those volunteers perhaps signed on under the assumption they would not face combat.

"They're being asked to perform duties that they were not necessarily expecting. They're doing things they didn't bargain for," Litz says. "And that abrupt change in expectations and in their jobs is bound to be stressful."

Readiness is also a concern. 40% of US forces in Iraq come from the Guard or Reserve; one problem this creates is lack of support for the service member upon their return to the states. Since they're not returning to a military base, it's easier for them to slip through the cracks.

"They go back into the community and are not immersed in active-duty culture. It may be a recipe for additional post-traumatic burden," Litz says. On the positive side, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoy support not seen during some recent conflicts, notably Vietnam. Studies in 2002 and 2003 maintain public opinion bolsters soldiers' attitudes and morale.

Addressing the mental health issue among veterans, though, may prove difficult. Soldiers are reluctant to admit problems. Though about 80 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a serious disorder acknowledge a problem, only about 40 percent want help, Litz reports. Soldiers fear a stigma they believe is attached to mental illness will hurt their careers, either in the military or the private sector. "The reality is mental health is stigmatized generally in our culture," Litz says.

DeVoll is seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. "The hardest thing I've ever done was stepping on the path to getting help," he says. Besides facing family, friends and society, DeVoll says, soldiers also fear memories. "Because now you've got to talk about these things. You've got to let it out."

Because of that, Edwards maintains, veterans who need counseling --- from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan --- aren't seeking it. "No doubt about it," he says. As the war on terrorism progresses, Edwards predicts, post-traumatic stress disorder will play a role in increasingly large number of veterans' lives. "I can't imagine it not."

Please contact the Courier to let them know you appreciate their coverage of this issue. We need to see more of this kind of reporting.

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