‘I came home wounded’

No two wars are alike. The combatants, the landscape or the underlying cause can differ from one war to the next.

But all wars have commonalities, too. Two are obvious: death and destruction. By definition, war is a deadly and destructive venture.

ADVERTISEMENT
Another universal truth about war—and one related to those first two—is that no one walks away unscathed. The abnormal reality of combat—or even the imminent risk of combat—can leave wounds that are not apparent, even to the soldier.

I was a battalion commander for one year in Iraq with the Mississippi Army National Guard. I returned to my family with four fewer soldiers than I took with me.

I wasn’t shot, but I came home wounded.

The ultimate outcome of this aspect of war can be suicide. And taking one’s life might be the first outward sign of a problem, such is the nature of psychological harm.

The National Guard, like the entire Defense Department, has been searching for a way to identify those who bear these unseen scars. But it is difficult.

For one, the veteran may disguise the symptoms. And who but a trained analyst can determine what behavior is cause for concern and what behavior is simply an individual’s personal quirks.

This is especially difficult in the reserve components. Guardsmen and Reservists, when not serving together on a deployment, spend little time with their uniformed colleagues. Active-component troops live, eat, work and relax together on bases 365 days a year. Their families interact. Any unusual behavior is more likely to be recognized.

My wife noticed that I was not the same man who had packed a rucksack and left for the Anbar province months earlier. And she was right.

War is a constant assault on your emotions. One way to deal with that is to build walls to prevent those emotions from escaping. But walls can be hard to tear down.

War is also an adrenaline rush. Coming down from that buzz doesn’t happen overnight.

Transition from the battlefield to civilian life can be swift. Mine was especially so: Three days from FOB Dogwood in Iraq to home on Christmas Eve. The quick change in surroundings was a jolt.

Some of my soldiers from the 150th Engineer Battalion went from searching for IEDs on lonely desert roads to shopping for Christmas gifts at crowded shopping malls within 72 hours.

In previous wars, soldiers suffered from “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” In 2017, we know it as post-traumatic stress syndrome or, sometimes, disorder.

My hat is off to the military for aggressively addressing this problem, but it is a tough nut to crack. The Pentagon counted 204 suicides in the reserve components in 2012. In 2016, the number was 203.

But suicide is not the only measurement. We don’t know how many troops are struggling with family relations or have lost interest in their work. They may not be close to taking that fatal final step, but they suffer daily.

And help can be hard to find in a small Wyoming town or among the farms of Iowa or in the deep woods of Maine. The physical isolation of a Guardsman can aggravate the psychological isolation.

The National Guard Association of the United States, which I lead as president, is hosting a seminar Tuesday at the National Guard Memorial, our headquarters here in Washington, D.C., to examine mental-health problems unique to the reserve components.

We have lawmakers, professional experts and combat veterans scheduled to participate. We have also invited congressional staffers to attend in hopes they can later educate their bosses and construct legislative solutions.

No one expects a miracle. But no one expects an end to war either. This problem isn’t going away.

The author served more than 30 years in the Mississippi National Guard. He became NGAUS president in March.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.