Supporting the Troops
Memorial Day in a time of war brings out the most strident accusations that those who do not support the war are guilty of not supporting the troops. The recent funding bill has once more brought out all the ugliness of the right wing asserting that the Democrats are guilty of undermining the troops. Yet, one only need to look at the actions of the Bush administration to see that behind their rhetorical screen is a shocking lack of support for the men and women who have been fighting this war.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we can take stock of what this war has cost those who serve in the President's war of choice. The most obvious cost is the number of deaths which today stands at 3444 according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. Then there are the obviously wounded soldiers who number over 25,000 (again from ICCC).
Yet, this is still just the tip of the iceberg for the troops who have paid dearly for this war. According to this piece in the San Jose Mercury from last month, up to 30% of the troops who have seen active combat duty for 4 months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan can face disabling neurological disorders without any physical sign.
About 1,800 U.S. service members, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, are now suffering from traumatic brain injuries caused by penetrating wounds. But neurologists worry that hundreds of thousands more - at least 30 percent of the troops who have engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan - are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders from the blast waves of IEDs and mortars, without suffering a scratch.
Here's why IEDS carry such hidden danger. The detonation of any powerful explosive generates a blast wave of high pressure that spreads out at 1,600 feet per second from the point of explosion and travels hundreds of yards. The lethal blast wave is a two-part assault that rattles the brain against the skull. The initial shock wave of high pressure is followed closely by the "secondary wind:" a huge volume of displaced air flooding back into the area, again under high pressure. No helmet or armor can defend against such a massive wave front.
Almost as daunting as treating traumatic brain injuries is the volume of such injuries coming out of Iraq. Macedo cited the estimates, gleaned at seminars with VA doctors, that as many as one-third of all combat forces are at risk of TBI. Military physicians have learned that significant neurological injuries should be suspected in any individuals exposed to a blast, even if they were far from the explosion. Indeed, soldiers walking away from IED blasts have discovered that they often suffer from memory loss, short attention spans, muddled reasoning, headaches, confusion, anxiety, depression and irritability.
And this type of injury is in addition to that other plague of war: PTSD. As NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been reporting, the military leadership has not come to terms with PTSD and still believe that the soldiers suffering from PTSD are malingerers who have character problems. Today, Zwerdling reported that the new "educational" presentation put together by the military to teach that PTSD is a legitimate combat injury is worse than useless.
"I would say [the training] is a failure," another psychiatrist, Dr. Judith Broder, told NPR.
Broder runs a network called The Soldiers Project, which includes more than 100 therapists in California and New York who offer free services to troops and their families. After listening carefully to the lecturer's choice of words and tone of voice, and analyzing the slides, Broder said the training could actually reinforce leaders who feel that soldiers with PTSD deserve to be punished.
The cost of this war has been paid by the soldiers and their families and this administration has done little to compensate them for their sacrifice. And the real costs are just starting to be clear.
But the unseen damage can be long-lasting. Most of the families of our wounded that I have interviewed months, if not years, after the injury say the same thing: "Someone should have told us that with these closed-head injuries, things would not really get all that much better."
Now in its fifth year, the Iraq conflict is not a war of death for U.S. troops nearly so much as it is a war of disabilities. The symbol of this battle is not the cemetery but the orthopedic ward and the neurosurgical unit. The men and women inside those units have come home alive but missing arms and legs, many unable to see or hear or remember who they were before being hit by a roadside bomb. Survival clearly represents as much of a revolution in military medicine as does the dominance of the suicide bomber and the roadside bomb in the age of "shock and awe." But now both the medical profession and the country are left to play a terrible game of catch-up.
It is time to recognize what the real sacrifice has been and realize to really support the troops, it will take more than words, but action that will span the rest of their lives. And it is past time to bring them home.