Act Locally » March 2, 2004
Coming to Grief
Like the breeze of late winter, a single word, unspoken, has rippled through the recent funerals of several U.S. service members returned from Iraq. Families and military press officers have different reasons for tight lips on the topic. But suicide among Iraq war soldiers, 29 cases by recent count, says volumes about drooping troop morale and raises further doubts about how accurately the toll on service members is being measured and how much more they will bear.
Demands are sharpening for release of an Army Surgeon General’s report about the prevalence of depression and suicide among service members stationed in Iraq and Kuwait. In February, an Army trainee stationed in North Carolina, Jeremy Hinzman, sought refugee status in Toronto as a conscientious objector, raising the prospects of an organized exodus of AWOL service members north of the border. And questions are ricocheting among grieving relatives in small-town America about the loss of loved ones.
“Why would he take a bottle [of pills]?” asks Rebecca Suell of her late husband, Joseph. A resident of Lufkin in East Texas, Suell died on duty in Iraq last June. According to the careful euphemism of the Army casualty report, the cause of death was “Self-inflicted: drug overdose.” But Suell’s mother, Rena Mathis, told the Washington Post, “I have no autopsy report, no toxicology report, nothing.”
The mood of troops on the ground is mixed at best, according to a survey by Stars and Stripes of 2,000 service members. Thirty-four percent reported their morale as low or very low. The military has transported nearly 1,000 troops from the occupied territory to Germany to be treated for mental health problems.
Even the brass in Washington has begun to scratch its head. “Are soldiers killing themselves in increased number due to deployment?” Army Col. Thomas J. Burke wondered aloud at a public appearance in late January. Burke, who directs mental health policy at the Pentagon, said no, but his boss, William Winkenwerder, admitted that the official rate of 13.5 suicides per 100,000 troops on the ground is about 20 percent higher than the recent average of 11.
“These are people of character who are losing all hope and taking this very unique step of ending their lives,” Stephen L. Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center told the Baltimore Sun. Robinson has helped draw attention to another problem not traced in the Pentagon’s calculations: stateside depression and suicide.
In January, a soldier receiving care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington became the second patient fresh from the front lines to commit suicide there in the past six months, according to the Post. The hospital did not mention either death in its weekly report.
Reporters have joined independent advocates for service members in probing the number of troops treated for what a hospital commander called “psychiatric and behavioral health issues.” Small but significant disclosures have followed.
“We certainly have seen an average, I would say, of 8 to 10 percent of our casualties” with mental problems, Army Colonel Rhonda Cornum told UPI in February. Cornum oversees the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the military’s biggest European hospital and intake point for service members injured during operations in Asia. Overall, hospital records reveal nearly 12,000 soldiers receiving care, with nearly 10,000 from Iraq and 2,000 from Afghanistan. Based on Cornum’s estimate, the Army has hospitalized nearly 10 percent of those troops for mental health injuries.
Hearing alerts from the front lines last fall about combat stress and depression, the Army sent an additional mental health team to Iraq. But service members are receiving mixed signals. In December, National Public Radio reported on the case of Staff Sgt. George Pogany, an exemplary soldier who reacted to seeing a grossly disfigured Iraqi corpse by vomiting. Temporarily unable to focus, Pogany told his higher-up.
Instead of getting a break, Pogany was threatened with removal, sent back to the United States, and charged with cowardice, which carries a potential death sentence. Back at Fort Carson, Colorado, Pogany was relegated to cleanup duty and blackballed by other soldiers. His charge was eventually reduced, to dereliction, but Pogany remains incredulous. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I just don’t understand how a medical condition or a medical problem can be treated with disciplinary action.”
Some activists don’t expect service members to continue enduring the risk of duty in Iraq. Facing daily bomb attacks around Baghdad, the boredom of extended deployment in the desert and ambushes that catch civilians in the crossfire, some troops are fleeing Iraq and disappearing after stateside rotation. The French magazine Le Canard Enchaine reports that 1,700 American soldiers have ditched their Iraq duty.
U.S. activist Carl Rising-Moore highlights their dilemma and encourages their escape to Canada as a last resort. “I’m telling them to go to their clergy, go to their commanding officers, and claim conscientious objection while in the military and fight it out like that,” he told the Vancouver Courier. “But if they’re considering pulling the trigger on themselves, I’m telling them to desert, just as George Bush Jr. did during Vietnam.”
Rising-Moore is urging Canadian armed forces veterans to help him construct a “Freedom Underground.” Such a patchwork system would aid U.S. service members who go AWOL from combat in Iraq in crossing the border to Canada. The network would be modeled on the organized drive to assist Vietnam draft-dodgers in the ’60s and early ’70s. The Hinzman case has breathed life into such efforts. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports his case is now before the Canadian Immigation and Refugee Board, which granted protection to none of the 268 U.S. applicants in 2003.
Meanwhile, those who constitute the home-front support network for service members try to empathize with lost friends and grow less guarded in their criticism of the conflict. “What could have happened—fright?” wonders Floyd Slaughter, owner of the Army Navy store in Joseph Suell’s hometown of Lufkin. “If he did, he was scared and saw no way out.”
Interviewed by the Post, Slaughter wouldn’t say the word suicide in regard to Suell’s death. But he did share his attitude about the war. The failure to find the dreaded weapons of mass destruction cited by the president, he said, has led him to oppose it.
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Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.