Military must stop deploying wounded soilders

IVAW's Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops challenges the military's endemic practices of deploying soldiers unfit for combat, both voluntarily and against their will. Their focus is on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). IVAW challenges the military on the grounds that as injured servicemembers, they have the right to heal.

“I was denied treatment for the mental and physical wounds I sustained in battle, like so many others,” says Ethan McCord, a former infantry soldier. “This campaign is critical for soldiers because we are asserting our right to heal. Now, the government has a choice- will it recognize our right to heal, or continue to deny it?”  McCord, who served in Iraq with the Bravo Company 2-16 made infamous by the Wikileaked “Collateral Murder” video, is actively involved in fighting for veterans' rights as well as reparations for Iraqi civilians who his unit harmed.

2,000 soldiers attempted suicide last year. 239 of those succeeded. An estimated 20-50% of all servicemembers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan struggle with PTSD, totaling 350,000 to 900,000 troops. Soldiers report inadequate access to treatment, domestically as well as while deployed. Recently, Fort Hood in Texas saw four decorated combat veterans commit suicide in a single week. Mental health screening is often cursory and anonymous, providing no real assessment of a unit's fitness even between deployments. Some soldiers intentionally conceal untreated mental health diagnoses, for fear that they'll be deployed without treatment but denied their firearms. A third of our soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq say they can't see a mental health professional when they need to.

Multiple deployments significantly increase the likelihood of PTSD.  As these occupations drag on, more than a third of our troops have returned to combat, with 10% serving three tours. Declining popular support for these wars has impacted recruitment, despite the military's attempts to drop standards and throw money at the problem, more than doubling the recruiting and retention budget between 2004 and 2008. Almost 30% of troops on their third tour suffer from serious mental health conditions. Mental and physical health issues are deeply complicated when compounded by Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), the so-called 'signature wound' of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which may account for almost a quarter of combat injuries.
 
15% of female servicemembers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported sexual assault or harassment. Men who experience MST are even less likely to report attacks. The obstacles faced in the process of reporting, particularly when the perpetrator ranks higher in the chain of command, are a deterrent to the issue being fully tracked, let alone confronted. Soldiers observe the repercussions their peers face when they expose misconduct and assault by superior officers. Suzanne Swift's case is one such example. Army Specialist Swift reported sexual assault by superiors while in Iraq, for which no action was taken, so she was forced to go AWOL to avoid being redeployed with PTSD under the same command. She was stripped of her rank and court-martialed; while she was in military jail, the officers who assaulted her experienced no censure.

Deployment and re-deployment of traumatized servicemembers moves beyond insult, past injury, into increasing danger. Servicemembers who struggle with serious mental health conditions may not be fit to protect themselves, each other, or the safety and dignity of the Iraqi and Afghan people. IVAW offers the U.S. a new and needed vision: applying warriors' courage to the massive undertaking of healing themselves, our country, and those countries our military continues to devastate. Will we allow the military to continue standing in the way, or support these troops?
 
Clare Bayard directs the Protecting Democracy Institute of Catalyst Project in San Francisco, California.

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