Dear General Shinseki,
I cannot imagine the burden of responsibility that you feel right now, the need to take care of the thousands of wounded young men and women who are now the responsibility of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Given what I know about you, you must feel as if they are your children. What must feel worse is that you were Cassandra, warning the powers above you that the war was being run in such a way that only death and destruction would rain down upon us. And, like Cassandra, you were shut up and shut away.
One of the truly nauseating moments in the run-up to the Iraq war was the humiliating public rebuke that Paul Wolfowitz, then Donald Rumsfeld's #2 at the Pentagon, delivered to Eric Shinseki, then a four-star general serving as Army chief of staff.
Shinseki, a wounded combat veteran of Vietnam, was by career and reputation a cautious, methodical person. Those who criticized his performance as Army chief mainly complained that he was too traditional and non-innovative in his approach. Thus, he was constantly at odds with Rumsfeld's crew, who viewed him as a passive-aggressive, fuddy-duddy obstacle to doing things in their new lean-and-mean way.
The showdown came just before the war began. Shinseki, who had direct experience with land warfare (in Vietnam) and post-combat occupation (in the Balkans), was urging that the U.S. go in with a force large enough to ensure that it could maintain order and genuinely control Iraq's sizable territory and potentially fractious society after it ousted Saddam. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz hated this whole idea.
Now, you have been charged with attempting to clean up the mess, tend to the wounded, the ruined lives who you tried to save before this disaster was upon us.
I want to know what I can do to help. I do not have medical training. I do not have psychological training. What I do have is experience, having lived with a Viet Nam vet who carried physical scars and private demons of the time he spent in the jungles.
Increasingly, I see PTSD, and the military's refusal to treat it as a legitimate battlefield injury, as a feminist issue. Let me explain.
Feminists have long claimed that the personal is political; they have also wrestled mightily with the "mind-body" problem. Whereas western male philosophers from ancient times have insisted that the body is secondary to the mind, and the mind is master, many feminists have recognized no such division. The mind is part of the body. The brain is an organ, and organs get hurt. The brain as an organ needs treatment.
Psychological issues are not indicative of some feminine weakness: it is not hysteria to suffer nightmares, and rages, and crave the sweet release of drink and drugs. It is not some sign that one is a lesser man because one may have come home from Iraq whole in body but shattered in spirit.
And who bears the brunt of these brain injuries? If the servicemen and women were married, then it is their families. How many incidents of domestic violence have there been since Iraqi veterans have been coming home? How many drunken rages that have resulted in jail time? How many abused children?
The war has invaded the private sphere. If the private sphere is the microcosm of the public sphere, then we have time bombs set to go off all over this nation. How long before one of these domestic blow-ups goes public, and even more folks suffer as a consequence?
Sgt. Kyle J. Harrington died yesterday. We lose sight of that sometimes—that there are still men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting. Dying. Being injured. Suffering trauma that will haunt them the rest of their days.
In case you're keeping count, here are the lastest numbers:
OFFICIAL DoD COUNT OF:
Troops Killed in Iraq: 4221
Troops Killed in Afghanistan: 636
Wounded in Action: 33648
When the DoD says 33,648 wounded in action, is it referring to the number of Purple Hearts it has given out? Or the number of service members who were hospitalized? Does it count those who have come home so brutalized by the war that whatever shiny newness they had before they went to war has been tarnished, rusted, destroyed?
But in the week or so since I have written about the lack of Purple Hearts for those with PTSD, two opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times.
See, it doesn't really matter about the medal. That's not the point. It's what the medal buys: access to VA Hospitals, to some level of care from the government that took away these kids' youths.
For the Ancient Greeks, it was a "divine madness" that infected the minds of soldiers. During the US Civil War, it became known as "soldier's heart". By the First World War it was called shell shock. Today, the condition is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Jeffrey Lucey, 23, hanged himself when he was denied mental health care.
Why in 2009 are we still arguing over whether PTSD or shell shock or battle fatigue is a real injury, a wound inflicted by war? Sometimes, just this question is enough to set me off. Goddamnit, I want to say. Goddamnit.
And vets themselves are writing about it.
Also, please stop telling people what me and my fellow Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans want. I won't be their voice because I don't know what they individually want to say and it's not fair to assume the mantle of "Voice of Vets." At least I have served this country and I understand the challenges that current Vets face making an adjustment from war. Here's a hint...its not like the movies. I have had to deal with the suicides of three fellow military members from my six years in the service. I have struggled with using the VA healthcare system and the difficulty of getting into college. Most troubled vets never ask for help and a lot of them end up homeless, in prison, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. Putting a yellow ribbon on your car or calling for the media to silence themselves sure as hell isn't going to help them out.
Personally, I no longer give a good goddamn whether you declare PTSD to be Purple Heart worthy or not. What I do demand is that these injuries be treated as that: as injuries that need to be treated. NOW. RIGHT NOW. Before others get hurt.
For those of you who are reading this, I have a couple of suggestions about how you might help. First, go to this site:
There you will find information about how you can volunteer, letters you can write, money you can send.
And second, please consider writing a letter to this man: Shinseki.
Part II of this article can now be found be found here.