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Is America Sending Battle-Weary, Clinically Stressed Soldiers Back into the Heat of Iraq?
Published on Saturday, April 3, 2004 by the lndependent/UK
Is America Sending Battle-Weary, Clinically Stressed Soldiers Back into the Heat of Iraq?
by Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

Just ten days ago, Jason Gunn didn't think he was in any shape to be sent back to active duty in Iraq.

That's what the 24-year-old tank driver told his family, and what he told the commanders at his US military base in Germany. It is also what he told a team of psychiatrists at Heidelberg Hospital, who not only agreed with his assessment but issued a formal recommendation that he be kept with them for further treatment.

Back in November, Specialist Gunn had suffered devastating injuries up and down the left side of his body when a roadside bomb obliterated the Humvee he was driving on the north side of Baghdad. Over and above his physical wounds, he also had to deal with the trauma of the sergeant in the seat behind his being ripped to shreds in the explosion.

Soon he was displaying classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) - anxiety, insomnia interspersed with recurring nightmares, and extreme agitation. Army doctors put him on two different medications to lift his mood and suppress his bad dreams. But the gung-ho, happy-go-lucky, overtly fearless soldier who had existed before last November obstinately refused to resurface.

It used to be accepted practice in the US military not to return a soldier to active duty unless he was fully fit - not just out of consideration for his own needs, but also to protect other members of his unit. In Iraq, however, growing anecdotal evidence suggests that a new policy is emerging - to patch up the wounded as quickly as possible and ship them straight back, threatening them with disciplinary action or even court martial if they show the slightest reluctance.

That, according to the available evidence, is what happened to Jason Gunn. On 23 March, he telephoned his mother in Philadelphia and told her he would refuse to go back to Iraq even if they ordered him to. The very next day, however, he was on a plane to Kuwait, and from there was told to make his own way back to his unit with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad.

Three days later, his family was shown a signed statement which seemed to contradict everything they knew about him. "It is my wish," the statement said, "to be redeployed with my unit to finish my tour of duty with my unit here in Iraq. I feel that I am able to complete my mission here as well as any other duties assigned to me while on current deployment."

The statement also said he had not been on prescribed medicines since early March - even though his mother believes he had been taking his two sets of pills right up to the time of his departure - and that he did not feel he was in need of "any type of counseling at this time".

It wasn't just his family who found that odd. It was also a flat contradiction of an earlier statement issued by his commanders in Landstuhl on the day of his departure, which acknowledged he was unwilling to return to Iraq and that he had been diagnosed with PTSD by the Heidelberg doctors.

So what happened? His mother, Pat Gunn, herself a military veteran, is in no doubt he was put under severe duress. "My fear," she said in an interview, "is that he was coerced or shamed into signing this statement, just as he was coerced or shamed into returning to Iraq ... .

"When I spoke to him the night before he left, he was adamant he was not going back. They did a lot to his psyche to get him on that plane."

The only contact Pat Gunn has had since his return to the Middle East was a single, very brief phone call from Kuwait to say he had arrived safely. Since then, there has been nothing, despite efforts by her and by the office of the powerful New York congressman Charles Rangel to find out what happened.

When a staffer for Mr Rangel called a military liaison officer this week, she was told that if Jason had not contacted his mother that was his choice and there was nothing they could do to force him.

According to Mrs Gunn, Jason was called a coward from the moment he returned to Landstuhl in early January - even though, just a few months earlier, he had been mentioned in dispatches when he rushed into the smoking ruins of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad to pull out the dead and wounded.

The statement issued by Jason's superiors in Germany, meanwhile, made clear that they had made a decision simply to ignore the medical advice from Heidelberg. They even said it "may be in his best interest mentally to overcome his fear by facing it".

That line of argument does not wash with most credible experts on PTSD, who say that sending a traumatized soldier back into combat is actually the very worst thing one can do. Steve Robinson, executive director of the Gulf War Veterans Resource Center in Maryland who has worked extensively with PTSD victims, called the reasoning "patently false".

"The best cure for PTSD is to pull a soldier back to a safe place and deal with the traumatic event that occurred," he said. "I can figure out about 100 better ways of overcoming a psychological injury than re-exposing the victim to his trauma. Remember, they used to put electrodes on people's head and shock 'em. They found out that wasn't such a good idea either."

Despite the growing scientific understanding of PTSD, case histories collected by Mr Robinson and others suggest combat stress victims are being sent back with growing frequency, and in some cases being subjected to humiliation, abuse and intimidation.

Late last year, an army translator called Georg-Andreas Pogany who had a violent reaction to the sight of a mutilated corpse was briefly charged with cowardice, a military crime punishable by death, and paraded across the national media as a disgrace to his country. Both the cowardice charge, and a lesser one of dereliction of duty, have since been dropped, apparently for lack of evidence.

Mr Robinson said he knew of an injured soldier evacuated from Iraq who became so exasperated at the lack of medical care offered by the military that he decided to pay for his own private treatment. That led to a charge of being absent without leave, as a result of which the soldier had a psychological breakdown and tried to kill himself. Rather than show any sympathy, Mr Robinson said his superiors tracked him down and sent him back to Iraq.

Similar cases have been collected by the group Military Families Speak Out, (MFSO), which represents US soldiers and their families who oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nancy Lessin, MFSO's co-founder, said she knew of several traumatized soldiers who had attempted suicide, either while recuperating or after they had been sent back.

"Jason Gunn is not an isolated case. The only thing unique about him is that the family is willing to speak out publicly," she said. "We see this as the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing for the first time the military laying out their strategy in writing - to send victims of PTSD back into battle, back to the front. This is how they are dealing with a situation where they are in over their heads without a plan in a war that should never have happened. The attitude is: as long as you can breathe, you can be redeployed."

While the individual stories are necessarily anecdotal, the big picture - of plummeting morale and record numbers of soldiers taking their own lives - is not since it has been documented by the Pentagon.

Last week, a much-delayed official report showed that the suicide rate in the military was higher now than it had been during Vietnam or since, with at least 23 soldiers committing suicide in Iraq last year and another seven killing themselves back home.

A survey by an Army mental health advisory team also found 52 per cent of troops in Iraq reporting low or very low personal morale, and 72 per cent complaining of low or very low unit morale.

A wide range of critics - including John Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger, and General Eric Shinseki, the recently departed army chief of staff - have charged that too few soldiers are being deployed in Iraq to carry out the ambitious tasks being asked of them.

© Copyright 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd


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