Back in the Box

When America invaded Iraq in 2003, the reports from the front-line were as fascinating as they were revolting.

We sent a volunteer army into Iraq. Many of the soldiers were from small towns. Many joined because of a lack of economic opportunity at home.

They went with typical American bravado, with no cross-cultural experience, no knowledge of the world, and no idea of what life might be like outside of high school and television. They were, like Americans in general, ignorant, arrogant and innocent.

I've never forgotten what a young soldier, a sergeant from West Virginia, told a British reporter: "I've been all the way through this desert from Basra to here, and I ain't seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant. These people got nothing. Even a in a little town like ours of 2,500 people, you got a McDonald's at one end and a Hardee's at the other."

Now that the violence in Iraq has diminished a bit and the death toll is calming down -- perhaps because of the surge and perhaps because the various factions are taking this time to regroup -- we've started paying attention to what this war has done to soldiers lucky enough to be returning home alive.

Thanks to some intrepid reporting and documentary filmmaking in the hospitals (and the artistic courage of Garry Trudeau in the cartoon strip "Doonesbury") the terrible physical damage has been exposed and acknowledged.

Now we're learning about the mental toll. Researchers at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego just released a study saying that new cases of PTSD among combat-exposed U.S. soldiers has risen threefold.

And The New York Times this past Sunday revealed that at least 121 male veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed in this country after returning home from the war.

They murdered their wives, girlfriends or their children. Or they murdered randomly on the street. At least three-quarters of them were still in the military when they committed their crimes -- some of them crimes that might have won them honors in Iraq.

Thirteen took their own lives after the killings. Another two were killed by police.

"What is clear that the experiences on the streets of Baghdad and Falluja shadowed these men" as they came back home, the Times said.

As they came back home to the towns with a McDonald's on one end and a Hardee's on the other. Back home to the way they had once thought the rest of the world should be. Back home to a place where people believe that America is the best country on earth, and that simple exposure to our ways will change the Middle East and make the people there want to be more like us. Back home to a world of unreality that has been blasted out of these soldiers' minds.

"He came back different," is what the families say. They talk about irritability, detachment, volatility, sleeplessness, excessive drinking and drug use. They talk about the way these soldiers always seemed to be carrying a gun.

One of these soldiers, now serving a prison term here, sports a tattoo in Latin of a Crusade-era saying: "Kill them all. God will know his own."

The 121 soldiers might be the extreme, but hearings held last year in Washington revealed some horrifying statistics: between 15 and 50 percent of the 1.6 million American soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. A CBS News investigation last year found that about 1,500 veterans -- from all wars -- kill themselves every year.

The Vietnam War has similarly tragic statistics. A National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that 15 percent of those veterans still have full-blown PTSD today. Half of those have been arrested at least once. Many are homeless.

"In the mid-1980s, with so many Vietnam veterans behind bars that the Vietnam Veterans of America created chapters in prisons, veterans made up a fifth of the nation's inmate population," the Times reported.

With the war not even close to over in Iraq or Afghanistan,

"Military health care officials are seeing a spectrum of psychological issues, with an estimated half the returned National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of marines reporting mental health problems, according to a Pentagon task force," the Times reported.

Because the culture of the Armed Forces makes seeking psychological help seem "unmanly" and weak, these numbers are probably low.

Not every soldier comes back from war with PTSD. Many of the ones who do learn how to deal with it; PTSD is treatable and even curable. It's true that crime also exists in the general population. In an editorial yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, the Times story was attacked as perpetuating the stereotype of the "wacko vet." But something about the Times story still rings true.

"You are unleashing certain things in a human being we don't allow in civic society, and getting it all back in the box can be difficult for some people," a San Diego prosecutor told the Times.

There are so many reasons to hate this war. This is just one more. How can we expect these young men and women to put their experiences back in the box by themselves? And until they do, they walk among us. And some of them are armed.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through Write her at

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