Fighting for Peace of Mind

Operation Recovery tries to stem war’s mental wounds.

Alexandra Markowski

Iraq Veterans Against the War march to promote Operation Recovery in Washington, D.C.

On Novem­ber 11, 2010 – Vet­er­ans Day – Army Spe­cial­ist Jeff Han­ks made head­lines when he turned him­self into mil­i­tary offi­cials after going AWOL in Octo­ber. Han­ks, a 101st Air­borne Sol­dier, refused to return to Afghanistan after being denied treat­ment for the Post Trau­mat­ic Stress Dis­or­der (PTSD) he has suf­fered since his 2008 tour in Iraq. The penal­ty for going AWOL could include jail time or a less-than-hon­or­able dis­charge, which would strip him of all vet­er­ans’ rights and health benefits. 

Han­ks’ deci­sion to speak out about his strug­gle to secure men­tal health­care drew atten­tion to the Iraq Vet­er­ans Against the War (IVAW)’s lat­est cam­paign: Oper­a­tion Recov­ery, which aims to stop the rede­ploy­ment of trau­ma­tized sol­diers suf­fer­ing from PTSD, brain injuries and sex­u­al trauma. 

One in every 10 sol­diers who has com­plet­ed a sin­gle deploy­ment has a men­tal ail­ment; the rate ris­es to 1 in 5 after a sec­ond deploy­ment and near­ly 1 in 3 after a third, Time mag­a­zine reports. If the U.S. mil­i­tary fol­lowed its own stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions, says IVAW’s Aaron Hugh­es, a min­i­mum of 20 per­cent of sol­diers that have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan could not be rede­ployed. That would make it prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble for the Unit­ed States to con­tin­ue its war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ulti­mate goal of IVAW.

This issue is sys­temic, it’s epi­dem­ic,” says Hugh­es, who served in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 and 2004. Han­ks is just one of thou­sands of sol­diers deal­ing with the same prob­lem.” Accord­ing to the Jour­nal of Trau­mat­ic Stress, stud­ies esti­mate any­where from about 10 to 50 per­cent, or 15,000 to 75,000 troops, of all ser­vice mem­bers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan suf­fer from PTSD. 

PTSD is direct­ly con­nect­ed to anoth­er major mil­i­tary prob­lem: suicide.The Army report­ed a record num­ber of sui­cides – 162 – among its ranks in 2009. The sui­cide rate among active-duty troops is twice as high as that of civil­ians, and vet­er­ans with PTSD are six times more like­ly to attempt sui­cide, accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs’ Nation­al Cen­ter for PTSD. 

Cur­rent­ly sol­diers under­go rou­tine med­ical screen­ings when they are deployed. But this brief screen­ing, Hugh­es says, is more of a check­box when going through mobi­liza­tion than any­thing else.” The U.S. Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO) has report­ed that the mil­i­tary has no com­pre­hen­sive over­sight frame­work to assure that its mem­bers are med­ical­ly and men­tal­ly fit for ser­vice, or to assess troops’ men­tal health con­di­tions when they return. This frame­work, the GAO says, is crit­i­cal to any med­ical screen­ing program.

In the cur­rent sys­tem, a com­mand­ing offi­cer has dis­cre­tion over what hap­pens after a sol­dier is screened. This means that some­one deemed inel­i­gi­ble for deploy­ment by a mil­i­tary men­tal health pro­fes­sion­al can still be forced to deploy with severe trau­ma, accord­ing to Under Sec­re­tary of Defense for Per­son­nel and Readi­ness David S.C. Chu. 

Oper­a­tion Recov­ery is cur­rent­ly focused on teach­ing the pub­lic how ingrained men­tal health mis­treat­ment is in Amer­i­can mil­i­tary cul­ture. IVAW encour­ages cit­i­zens to pledge sup­port on its web­site z(at www​.ivaw​.org) and con­tact their rep­re­sen­ta­tives. We want as many peo­ple talk­ing about the military’s treat­ment of men­tal health­care as pos­si­ble,” Hugh­es said. That way, we can stop send­ing trau­ma­tized sol­diers back into combat.” 

Alexan­dra Markows­ki is a for­mer In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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