The Mind of the Returning Iraq War Veteran

“They fly the flag when you attack: when you come home they turn their backs.”

Iraq Veterans Against the War cadence

One hears it all the time from soldiers who fight in wars: “You don’t come back the same.” It’s a simple truism with enormous consequences for the men and women who are on their way back to the United States from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many thousands of soldiers will be forever changed from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To be diagnosed with PTSD is an affirmation that a soldier is human. It is the mammalian brain functioning at its highest level and acknowledging that–despite all the training and brainwashing in boot camp (KILL, KILL, KILL)–it is in no way normal or natural to kill other human beings, to torture and commit atrocities (Haditha, Abu GHraib), to humiliate, subjugate and occupy a people and their country.

The negative psychological impact of war is well known by the Pentagon brass that sends soldiers into theaters of war where daily, death and dismemberment are facts of life. They understand when soldiers see their comrades-in-arms blown to bits, missing limbs, bloodied and burned bodies and grey matter strewn on walls, bridges, and highways that a psychological price is paid. The media in the United States does not show us these grisly images, but they are seared in the brains of countless soldiers.

Combat trauma has been studied since WW1. Over 8 million soldiers died in 4 years in that war. The death toll banished the notion that soldiers glory in battle and “real men” are impervious to the horrors of war. Under conditions of unrelenting exposure to the barbarity of trench warfare, soldiers began to have mental break downs in massive numbers. The British psychologist Charles Myers called the resulting nervous disorder “shell shock.” He believed it was the concussive effects of exploding shells that caused symptoms like screaming, crying uncontrollably, loss of memory and the inability to feel. But in fact, it was the emotional stress of prolonged exposure to violent death and destruction that produced what was later called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) Military authorities refused to believe it. When the existence of a combat neurosis could not longer be denied, military psychiatrists and other personnel–instead of treating soldiers humanely and with compassion–did the opposite. These soldiers were called “moral invalids,” cowards, malingerers, and unpatriotic. Some argued they should be court-martialed or dishonorably discharged rather than offered psychological care. Progressive medical authorities disagreed and advocated humane treatment.

Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier in WW1, was treated for shell shock. He became famous when, while still in uniform, he publicly joined the pacifist movement and denounced the war. The text of his Soldier’s Declaration written in 1917 is remarkably relevant for the imperialist wars of the 21st century, and most presciently, the occupation of Iraq. He wrote:

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong the sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

A few years after the war was over, medical interest in the subject of combat neurosis ended.

The Vietnam War opened the wound up again, but this time the impetus to understand the psychological impact of war was organized by soldiers themselves. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) started “rap groups.” These meetings were peer led and allowed soldiers to talk about the traumatic experiences of war. They were also political meetings that raised consciousness around the causes of war, imperialism, class, and racism. These vets refused to be stigmatized and insisted that the war itself was to blame for their psychological problems.

The power of the antiwar movement was also crucial and gave strength to veterans, and veterans who spoke out against the war and threw their medals away gave power and legitimacy to the antiwar movement.

After the war ended Vietnam vets forced the Veterans Administration to address the mental health issues of returning soldiers. In 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder finally became a “real” diagnosis and was included in the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of mental disorders. Without the organizing of soldiers, together with the anti-war movement, the psychological trauma of war (PTSD) would have been conveniently forgotten once again.

Those who run the war machine have always sought to ignore, downplay or deny the irrefutable fact that war profoundly damages the human psyche. How could they continue to recruit fresh troops if it were widely known, discussed, and taken seriously that almost every soldier will experience PTSD to some degree? That for some, they will be psychiatrically disabled for life, or become addicted to drugs to cope with the flashbacks and fear, perhaps unable to work and unable to enjoy the freedom they supposedly fought for. But the good news is with treatment PTSD is treatable and can be cured. That’s the other thing about the mammalian brain–with the love, support, and understanding of other human beings, trauma can be overcome.

The problem is getting that treatment and the need is overwhelming. According to Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one in three veterans is now returning with some form of PTSD. The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans getting treatment for PTSD at VA hospitals and counseling centers increased by 87 percent from September 2005 to June 2006. But there are many more that never get treatment because there is still a stigma attached to admitting to psychological problems. Soldiers report being made fun of, punished, demoted, and threatened with dishonorable discharge.

One of the main reasons for the increase in numbers is the Pentagon’s stop-loss policy. More troops are serving two, three and occasionally four tours-of-duty in Iraq which puts them at greater risk for PTSD.

The VA hospital and clinic system are in deep crisis as the recent revelations at Walter Reed showed. VA’s all over the country are underfunded and understaffed. How can this be when billions of dollars a month are spent on the war? There is a backlog of 600,000 cases and vets can wait up to 170 days for mental health treatment. For some it is already too late. A report by the Defense Manpower Data Center stated that suicide accounted for over 25 percent of all non-combat Army deaths in Iraq in 2006. And Pentagon statistics reveal that the suicide rate for U.S. troops who have served in Iraq is double what it was in peacetime.

One thing is clear: President Bush and the other war criminals in the Whitehouse and Pentagon don’t give a shit about the lives of soldiers. They are canon fodder and nothing else.

Now a new generation of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to continue the struggle for mental health care that they and their families will need.




Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at