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Home > Politics > US soldiers in Iraq suffer horrific brain and mental injuries

US soldiers in Iraq suffer horrific brain and mental injuries

20 November 2004 | World Socialist Web Site

by Rick Kelly

According to official figures, the Iraq war has so far seen
9,000 US soldiers wounded in action, in addition to the more than
1,200 troops killed. These wounded, whose numbers may well be
underestimated, include those with gunshot and shrapnel wounds,
lost limbs and other injuries caused by landmines and bombs. Less
well known, however, is the terrible toll enacted through brain
and psychological injuries, which frequently have devastating
and permanent effects.

The war has seen unusually high rates of traumatic brain injury(TBI). This head injury causes life-long damage in many cases.Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty with attention and reasoning,headaches, confusion, anxiety, irritability and depression.

TBI rates in previous wars have been estimated at about 20percent. In July, a San Francisco Chronicle survey of troopsbeing processed through Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in WashingtonDC indicated that as many as two-thirds of all soldiers woundedin Iraq suffer from the condition.

The increase in brain injury cases is largely due to the advancedbody armor and helmets now used by US forces. As the death rateof wounded troops has declined compared to previous conflicts,the rate of TBI has shot up. The nature of the Iraq war has alsoincreased the number of brain injuries. Rocket propelled grenades,mortars, and other explosive devices cause concussive shock blastsdamaging to the brain.

Traumatic brain injury often goes undetected until the affectedsoldier returns home and his or her family notices that somethingis wrong. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the caseof Sgt. 1st Class Alec Giess, of the Oregon National Guard, whosetruck rolled over him as it crashed while avoiding a suspectedland mine:

“Geiss’ wife, Shana, noticed after his return thatthe easygoing, relaxed dad who went to Iraq had become a quick-temperedman who couldn’t remember the family’s daily schedule,jumped up screaming when the family cat landed on his bed andcouldn’t tolerate crowds. The world inside his head, Giesssaid, was even stranger: he felt bewildered, with no sense oftime other than ‘daytime’ and ‘nighttime.’He also felt cut off from his emotions. ‘When my kids comeand hug me, I don’t feel a thing,’ he said.”

Many other incidents of TBI are even more severe. ABC Newsreported last month on the situation in one Veterans Affairs hospitalin Palo Alto, California. “The majority of [TBI patients],they’re incontinent, both bowel and bladder, so we have toretrain them when to use the toilet, how to use the toilet,”nurse manager Stephanie Alvarez said.

Each patient at the facility is given a “memory book,”which describes that day’s schedule, and other importantinformation. For many wounded soldiers this includes a reminderof why they are in hospital. “I had a head injury from anexplosion in Iraq on June 14, 2004,” one soldier’s bookread.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

The US military is also experiencing a very high rate of post-traumaticstress disorder (PTSD) among troops. Many of the symptoms aresimilar to traumatic brain injury. Post-traumatic stress disordersufferers can experience feelings of detachment and isolation,poor concentration and memory, depression, insomnia, flashbacks,as well as headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, and immunesystem problems. Like TBI, soldiers suffering from psychologicaldisorders have high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

A study published by the New England Journal of Medicinein July found that up to 17 percent of the surveyed Iraq veteranssuffered from PTSD, generalized anxiety, or major depression.This probably underestimated the true scale of the problem, sincethe soldiers in the study served in the early phase of the war,before the Iraqi resistance really intensified.

“The bad news is that the study underestimated the prevalenceof what we are going to see down the road,” Dr. Matthew J.Friedman, executive director of the Veterans Affairs (VA) nationalcenter for post-traumatic stress disorder, told the Los AngelesTimes last Sunday. “The complexion of the war has changedinto a grueling counterinsurgency. And that may be very importantin terms of the potential toxicity of this combat experience.”

“This is urban warfare,” declared Dr. Alfonso Bates,the VA’s national director for readjustment counseling. “There’sno place to hide in Iraq. Whether you’re driving a truckor you’re a cook, everyone is exposed to extreme stress ona daily basis.”

There have been at least 30 reported suicides among soldiersin Iraq—a rate nearly one-third higher than the Army’shistorical average. Many more suicides occur in the US by thosewho have finished their tour of duty, but since the Pentagon doesnot track these incidents the number is not known.

Associated Press, however, reported on October 18 that at least12 Marines had killed themselves after returning from Iraq orAfghanistan. “Military people are heavily vetted for anypsychological problems before they enter the service,” notedSteve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War ResourceCenter. “They’re screened very well when they come in,and they’re supposed to be screened very well when they leave.So when a Marine takes the ultimate step of checking out by takinghis own life, it should make the hair on the back of your neckstand up. These are the guys who aren’t supposed to do that.”

There is mounting evidence that the rate of suicide and psychologicaldisorders is at least partially due to the brutality of the US-ledoccupation. Most of those serving in the military were drawn fromworking class and impoverished rural regions, and enlisted eitherto get a job or to advance their education.

These young people have been dispatched to a war that was basedon a series of flagrant lies, and that violated numerous preceptsof international law. They are now being ordered to intimidateand terrorize the Iraqi people, and to crush any resistance tothe occupation and Iyad Allawi’s stooge interim government.The killing and brutalization of the Iraqi people has triggeredguilt, shame and serious psychological problems for many soldiers.

Last month Associated Press reported the case of Jeffrey Lucey,a 23-year-old Marine who suffered from serious depression andbecame dependent on alcohol after returning from Iraq in July2003. On Christmas Eve he told his sister how he had been orderedto shoot two unarmed Iraqi soldiers. “He took off two dogtags around his neck, then threw them at me and said, ‘Don’tyou understand? Your brother is a murderer,’” she recalled.Lucey killed himself in June.

Former Army sergeant, Matt La Branche, told the Los AngelesTimes that the memories of his nine-month stint as a machine-gunnerin Iraq left him “feeling dead inside.” He constantlystruggles with the image of the Iraqi woman who died in his armsafter he had shot her. The woman’s children were also woundedin the incident. “I’m taking enough drugs to sedatean elephant, and I still wake up dreaming about it,” he said.

Affected soldiers receive grossly inadequate treatment fromthe military establishment. Brain trauma and psychological injuriesoften require months of expensive and intensive rehabilitation,long-term drug therapy and psychological counseling. Facilitiesthat were already underfunded and overstretched are now at breakingpoint.

Receiving treatment is especially difficult for sufferers ofPTSD. Army psychologists are pressured to get their patients backout in the field as soon as possible, while the macho culturecultivated within the ranks leads many soldiers to deny that theyhave a problem. The New England Journal of Medicine studyfound that less than half of all soldiers affected by PTSD soughttreatment, fearing stigmatization or damage to their careers.

Officials also leave many families of PTSD sufferers completelyunprepared for the shock of having to deal with the condition.One woman told the New Yorker how she had been advisedprior to the return of her husband from Iraq: “When he wascoming home, the Army gave us little cards that said things like‘Watch for psychotic episodes’ and ‘Is he drinkingtoo much?’ A lot of wives said it was a joke. They had alady come from the psych ward, who said—and I’m serious—‘Don’tcall us unless your husband is waking you up in the middle ofthe night with a knife at your throat.’ Or, ‘Don’tcall us unless he actually chokes you, unless you pass out. He’llhave flashbacks. It’s normal.’”

Such treatment is indicative of the way in which tens of thousandsof young people are being used as cannon fodder in Iraq. Responsibilityfor their suffering rests with the criminals in the White Housewho launched the war of aggression, and more broadly, the entireUS political establishment which is united on maintaining theindefinite occupation of Iraq.

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