After spending four years on active duty at Fort Lewis, Wash., I joined the Tennessee National Guard and deployed to central Baghdad from 2004 to 2005. I went to Iraq knowing that our occupation was both illegal and immoral, but as a medic I felt a duty to deploy with my fellow soldiers. The mission of the Army’s medical corps is “to conserve the fighting strength,” i.e. the medic must ensure the health and combat readiness of each soldier under his care.
I forged strong relationships with soldiers in my unit; we were close friends. What if one of them were killed or injured? Could another medic provide the same level of care I could? Despite my moral reservations, I thought my unit would do some positive things during deployment: protect Iraqi civilians and help them rebuild their country.
I was wrong. You can’t protect people while simultaneously oppressing them.
My experiences in occupied Iraq traumatized me. I returned home angry, with debilitating depression and vivid memories playing through my mind like an eight-millimeter reel: dead soldiers, dead civilians, car bombs, IEDs, rockets, the smell of open sewage, bodies splattered on walls, U.S. soldiers firing at unarmed Iraqis. The war followed me home. Despite a rudimentary understanding of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I never expected the condition to exact such a toll on my life. I destroyed numerous relationships, was fired from my job, attempted suicide in a friend’s bathroom, and spent a week on the psychiatric ward at Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, N.C. — all within three years of returning home from Iraq.
Healing the trauma of war never happens overnight and often means a lifelong struggle. In that context, healing requires at least two things: a long-term commitment to health and a supportive community. I found that commitment and community when I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) in August 2007. We are a group of active duty service members and veterans having served since September 11, 2001. IVAW’s mission and goals are three-fold: immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, reparations paid to Iraqis and Afghans for the destruction we’ve caused and full benefits for all returning veterans regardless of discharge status.
In pursuit of our goals, IVAW recently launched our first national campaign called Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops. While IVAW seeks to end deployments for all troops, the current wars continue in part because our government denies troops their basic right to heal.
According to the Department of Defense’s own conservative reports, 17 percent of those currently deployed in Afghanistan take at least one psychotropic drug — an antidepressant, a sleeping pill, an anxiety medication — the same drugs that I am prescribed as a disabled veteran. Up to half of deployed troops suffer from PTSD. Sixty percent of women serving in the National Guard and Reserve, along with 27 percent of men, experience Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
According to current DOD policy, a unit commander can force a traumatized troop to deploy against a medical professional’s advice — all in the name of “combat readiness”. I believe these practices are egregious and violate our country’s most basic values. GIs deserve to heal from their wounds — both visible and invisible — before we hand them weapons and return them on a fourth, fifth or sixth combat tour.
IVAW cannot accomplish this alone. Our government needs traumatized troops to fuel the occupations overseas. We need you to fight with us. Visit http://www.ivaw.org/operation-recoveryto learn more about our campaign and sign the pledge supporting no more deployments for traumatized troops.