by Brad Cotton, Record Herald, May 28, 2010
Mike( not his real name) walked among the empty combat boots at our “Eyes Wide Open-Ohio” exhibit on the Pickaway County Courthouse Steps September 2009. There were over 190 empty boots, one for each Ohio soldier KIA in Iraq, as well as a large collection of civilian shoes for the Iraqi civilian casualties. It was hard for us to place these boots, knowing what each one represented, with name and picture attached. It takes time to line them up in straight lines, in military formation as it were. The Iraqi baby shoes are hard also. It is hard to look at the war with one’s eyes and heart fully open. Yet that is why we are here, front and center on the Courthouse plaza. These boots and shoes must be seen and felt deeply at heart.
Mike found the boots with his high school friend’s name and photo. Phil (not his real name) was only 20 when he was killed by an IED. Mike had spoken with him a week before his death. Phil told him that his unit had shelled a small group of homes. On searching the rubble they found an entire family dead, including three school age children. Phil had told Mike that he could not go on, the children’s faces kept him awake at night, that he felt that he had killed himself as well as the Iraqi family. Phil’s pain ended with his own death a week later. I look at Phil’s photo attached to the empty boots. He looked like a boy I would have been proud to call my son.
Late at night in the emergency department, I have seen over a dozen like Phil, who although they made it back physically from Iraq and Afghanistan are a stranger to themselves and their loved ones. Their family brings them in when their anger, their withdrawal, their nightmares or their attempts to make the pain go away with alcohol worsens the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I tell such vets that in my service with the 256th Evacuation Hospital and the 2291st US Army Hospital I never saw combat, but I was trained to treat the casualties and that the vet in front of me certainly looks badly wounded. It is then I hear the stories: the effect of .50 caliber machine gun fire on a human body, the guilt of a survivor whose buddies were all killed, and so often, the faces of dead Iraqi children.
Over two million US troops have been deployed to Iraq/Afghanistan. 40% of them for a least two tours. 300,000 have deployed three or more times. A 2009 Army report notes that 31% of those serving three tours have definite PTSD symptoms. A Stanford University study estimates that 24% of those with one tour have PTSD, 39% of those with two tours, 64% of those with three tours have significant PTSD. A New Jersey National Guard study estimates 20% of those being sent back into combat already suffer from PTSD. Many, many of the “noncombat” deaths are in fact suicides. ( all stats from “Revolving Door of Multiple Tours linked to PTSD” Associated Press , 11 April 2010)
Command Sergeant Major Sam Rhodes, now retired, felt responsible for the loss of seven soldiers in his unit. On return to home to Fort Benning he and his wife divorced, very common for troops with PTSD. Rhodes notes of his ex-wife “She says the war took the man she married away from her, that I would never be the same.” Rhodes has now authored a book “Changing the Military Culture of Silence” and talks to military and civilian audiences about PTSD—“Only a normal person can go to war and see the things we have and feel what we have when we come back. If you’re rock hard and have no feeling of loss or anything, that’s what’s abnormal.”
This Memorial Day let’s find these wounded veterans among us and listen with ears and eyes and hearts wide open and welcome them back to humanity. Remember also that those most deeply hurt and in need often behave in ways that drive others away. As former Army Lt. Shannon P. Meehan wrote in “Beyond Duty” –“Soldiers bring the ghosts home with them, and it’s everyone’s job to hear about them, no matter how painful it may be.”
Brad Cotton, Member Veterans for Peace.
Veterans for Peace is a national organization of veterans who draw upon their personal experiences and perspectives gained as veterans to raise public awareness of the true costs of militarism and war—and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives.