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The Iraq War Becomes Suicidal

I gave a dollar to a shabbily dressed young man holding a “help me” sign on a Market Street in San Francisco. Most Saturday shoppers, many of them foreign tourists taking advantage of the cheap dollar, ignored him and the scores of homeless people hoping to score some spare change. Dave thanked me.

I asked him why he wasn’t working.

“My back hurts,” he explained. The pain began “outside of Baghdad.” He pointed to the base of his spine. “A mortar shell exploded. A couple pieces of metal lodged somewhere here.” He pointed to the base of his spine. “One of my buddies got hit in the eye. He’s worse off than me.” Dave said he was about to turn 26 and had lived on the streets for almost two years.

Heroin? I guessed.

He smiled.

“Some had it worse. Arms, legs, brains.”

I asked where he slept.

“Parks, under freeways, sometimes in homeless shelters if I have nothing that can get stolen,” he laughed.

I shook his hand and wished him luck. “Hey,” he called. “I haven’t killed myself yet like some of my buddies did.”

Dave was referring to the average of 18 veterans who kill themselves every day in the United States. “In California alone in 2006, 666 veterans committed suicide,” reported John Koopman. (SF Chronicle, May 12, 2008)

Dave might have been referring to Tim Chapman, also of San Francisco. Like Dave, he could not readapt to civilian life after his experience with war in the Middle East. Tim got on drugs. He joined a gang. His wife left him and he began to focus on ending his life, he told Koopman.

Throughout the country, communities cope with tens of thousands of U.S. troops returned from Afghanistan and Iraq with blighted bodies and brains.  As long as Bush’s wars continue – no candidate has pledged to withdraw all the troops – the country faces a growing collection of veterans, many of whom cannot function in family or work settings. They suffer from war wounds – physical and mental — that require expensive treatment.

Even though the overall number of veterans has begun to decline as World War II and Korea participants expire, “the government expects to be spending $59 billion a year to compensate injured warriors in 25 years, up from today’s $29 billion.” And reporter Jennifer C. Kerr cites the Veterans Affairs Department, which “concedes the bill could be much higher.” (Associated Press, May 11, 2008)

Those who don’t show injuries or don’t come in for or respond to treatment have become the highest risks. In 2005, CBS News began investigating suicides in the U.S. military. “120 people each week who had served in the military committed suicide. That’s an average twice that of non-veterans,” concluded a report from CBS’ Armen Keteyian (Nov. 13, 2007)

CBS asked Dr. Steve Rathbun, acting head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the University of Georgia, for a detailed analysis of suicide statistics obtained from government authorities for 2004 and 2005. From the figures, Rathbun found that veterans “were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as non-vets.” Iraq and Afghan War veterans aged 20 through 24 had the highest suicide rate among all veterans — between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000. The general population has 8.9 per 100,000.

In early April, a group of lawyers representing veterans’ rights sued in a San Francisco federal court. The suit claimed the VA had deliberately concealed the risk of suicide among veterans. Attorney Gordon Erspamer put it generously. “Unfortunately the VA is in denial,” said the Veterans’ Rights Attorney. Erspramer was referring to emails written by Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s head of Mental Health. Katz had insisted that the suicide risk for returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans was in normal range. “There is no epidemic in suicide in VA,” Katz told CBS’ Keteyian last November. But in one 2007 email Katz wrote: “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month [12,000 a year] among veterans we see in our medical facilities.”  That contradicted the number the VA gave CBS News (790 attempted suicides in 2007).

The e-mail, “Not for the CBS News Interview Request,” began with “Shh!” Katz finished his email with: “Is this something we should (carefully) address … before someone stumbles on it?”

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Ca), chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs called this “a crime against our nation, our nation’s veterans.” (CBS News)

Katz later regretted his statement. “It was an error and I apologize [to the House Committee] for that.” (CBS news interactive, April 23, 2008)  Katz confessed he knew some 12,000 veterans a year had attempted suicide while being treated by the VA. That figure doesn’t cover those not under VA treatment. Katz wondered if “this is something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

Bush Administration officials are replete with sick jokes. Remember FEMA’s Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina? The right wing bureaucrats saved their cruelest joke for those deployed and returning from the Middle East, almost 1.7 million men and women. Veterans suffering from wounds or traumas often observe their conditions worsening, leading to greater disabilities. The new vets know more than the ones from previous wars about getting their rightful benefits; thus, rising costs.

Because battlefield and emergency medical care have improved dramatically since World War II and Korea, and even since Vietnam, wounds that would have previously killed have become treatable. The number of vets collecting after Afghanistan and Iraq duty has grow to almost 200,000.

When Bush’s routine “special” request to continue the war appears before Congress, however, most Members — and certainly not the President — don’t focus on the disabled veterans. Since 2001, when Bush initiated his two wars, the number of partially destroyed vets has leaped 25 percent. 2.9 million Daves – or far worse cases – now populate the country. They join older vets from older wars as part of those who fit Franz Fanon’s description: the wretched of the earth.

Rick used booze, a habit he acquired in Vietnam where he served two tours of duty doing “search and rescue.” Within a decade after his return to the United States he became convinced that he saw malevolent shadows. These illusive entities manufactured parasites and directed them to burrow under his skin and have now followed him to the gas station near his Oakland street lodgings.

He has spent two decades battling that fear – with the help of booze and other substances, of course. “The war was the most exciting time in my life,” he concluded as he scratched the spots where the imaginary entities had crawled under his skin. “You wonder why they would do it all over again.”

Tens of millions of Americans ask why Bush and his supposedly conservative advisors would again dispatch young men and women to fight a war that had no just cause and threatens to drag on endlessly. Millions ask: Why can’t the United States withdraw? Why doesn’t Congress just cut the funds? They shake their heads at the answers.

Civil war might break out. We can’t desert those poor Iraqis. Al Qaeda could claim victory. Our reputation, our prestige, our national conscience, blah blah blah….

Steve Smithson, a deputy director at the American Legion, told AP reporter Jennifer Kerr that suicide “is a cost of war” as if patriotic – sheeplike? — Americans simply had to accept that war brings awful things, but when the President calls the patriots respond.

Almost 24 millions veterans – disabled or not – watch their numbers dwindle as World War II and Korean War vets die. The VA projects that by 2033 only 15 million will remain, but it will cost more to deal with them. Compensation for disabled veterans, agency economic predict, will increase from today’s $29 billion to $33 billion – at least. The disabilities mount, the injuries become more acute.

A RAND corporation study claimed some 300,000 ex soldiers suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than 320,000 had probably experienced traumatic brain injuries in combat. The nature of Bush’s wars means “in Iraq and Afghanistan all service members, not just combat infantry, are exposed to roadside bombs and civilian deaths. That distinction subjects a much wider swath of military personnel to the stresses of war.” (Julian Barnes, LA Times April 18, 2008)

ENOUGH ALREADY!

SAUL LANDAU received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from Chile. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch).

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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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