The Unseen Casualties

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The New York Times is running a story this morning on the unseen American GI casualties which are beginning to, and are anticipated to, overwhelm our Veteran's health care system. They are the psychologically wounded. The article is entitled, A Flood of Troubled Soldiers Is in the Offing, Experts Predict. These stories struck home with me, since my last 2 years of duty in the Army from 1973 to 1975, were spent working as a psychiatric technician in a military hospital at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.

In general, there are two schools of thought regarding public awareness of our GI casualties. One school, to which the Bush Administration subscribes, says it is injurious to our war effort, to our armed forces in harms way, and to our continued public support of war endeavors, to make too public the nature and reality of our soldiers casualties. The other school says, in a civilian democracy, to hide casualties of war from public view is to encourage militarism and war as a solution without regard for the real human costs to our nation, and without exhausting all other alternatives, first.

That is a political debate that will never be resolved with unanimity in a civilian democracy. But, for those who do witness first hand the casualties of war, it is difficult to resist falling into the Dove side of the debate. And for those who have lost loved ones in war, it is difficult to resist moving to the Hawk side of the debate. Loss must be justified. To justify losing a loved one in war, one must accept the arguments for the necessity of that war. If the war was not justified, then the loss was a waste, and that is not acceptable.

While working at Chambers Pavilion at Ft. Sam, we had a patient traumatized by his military experience. I will call him John. There is little doubt John brought psychological baggage with him into the service that predisposed him to being traumatized by his military experience. But, the fact remains, something happened to him in the military that did not happen to him in civilian life. I did not know this patient well personally; he was not assigned to me on my shifts. Though he was on my ward, and I had played cards with him and chatted with him about unimportant matters. There was really no reason for me to remember him at all, except for one incident. He jumped from a 3rd or 4th floor window, and lived.

I came on duty one afternoon and his suicide attempt was all the buzz. Everyone was obsessed with wanting to know the details and who was at fault for allowing it to happen. I too wanted to know if he was on suicide watch, meaning a technician like myself was responsible for absolutely never, ever, taking their eyes off that patient and their activity. Where did it happen, how did it happen, what were the nature of his injuries? Needless to say, his injuries were massive and severe. Shattered pelvis, ribs, shoulder, skull, legs, but, he was rushed to surgery and was still alive after it.

Then, the horror of it sank in. A number of us were responsible for these soldiers' well being during the Viet Nam war; these soldiers who had returned psychologically scarred, abberated, conflicted, and tormented by what they had witnessed others do to human beings, and in some cases by what they themselves had done which they could not live with in their minds. Then began our own grieving. For us psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nursing staff charged with their care and restoration, we now had a loss of our own to contend with. I was deeply affected by the incident.

I had pulled a number of suicide watch duties at Chambers. Upon occasion, I would be blowing my nose, or chatting with another patient or staff member, only for a few seconds, and return my gaze to find my patient gone from view. It happened to all of us on suicide watch duty from time to time. The thought that entered my mind was, "Oh shit, I could lose stripes over this, where the hell did he go?" I ran immediately to find my patient, usually found in the bathroom or in the recreation room. I remember once feeling annoyed that the patient would do that to me.

But after John jumped, I had bouts of tears for sometime after. I could not help but think it could have been me assigned to John, it could have been me who had to carry the burden of having failed to serve and protect my fellow soldier and patient. It could have been me who allowed his death or massive injuries to occur. I also could not shut out the immense pain and anguish and despair that John carried with him out that window. I could not help but wonder what his experience was during the Viet Nam war that drove him to such extreme measures as to take his own life. I also remember thinking how intensely grateful I was that it was not me who had experienced what he had. I don't know what happened to John. After a few days, it was a verboten topic at the hospital. Bad for morale, you know.

Many Americans will view our returning psychological victims of the Iraq war as wimps, girlie boys, who just couldn't take it, didn't have what it takes. It is America; we are all free to think what we wish. But, I would suggest to all who read this article, that it is incumbent upon us as civilians to open our hearts and compassion for the casualties of the Iraq war whom we directed to go fight there.

I would suggest that it is the ultimate insult to our troops to hide their suffering from our eyes and our wallets. I would suggest, that if we wish to retain our own humanity, that we encourage our Congress and our President to find some money in the failed star wars defense system, or some money from those pork barrel projects to observe why birds are eating sunflower seeds in North Dakota, and spend it on providing the absolute best possible care and treatment of our returning wounded for as long as they require it. And I would suggest to readers here, that a tortured mind is no less painful than a body torn and ripped by racing projectiles.

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This page contains a single entry by David R. Remer published on December 16, 2004 10:13 AM.

Is America Headed for Orwellian Perpetual War? was the previous entry in this blog.

Bush Selling S.S. Same as Iraq War is the next entry in this blog.

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