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Talking Points Memo

The (Unsurprising) Psychic Toll of the War in Iraq

By this point, we should not be surprised to realize that the media, after a brief flurry of coverage, quickly dropped the story of John Russell, the Army sergeant being treated for mental issues, who gunned down five colleagues at a stress clinic in Baghdad earlier this month. That's why I was startled to see that Bob Herbert highlighted this episode in his New York Times column today, under the title, "War's Psychic Toll." It was the first mention I'd seen in quite a few days.

The slaughter of five comrades by a "stressed out" U.S. soldier is a true tragedy -- but should not have come as a shock. It's also richly symbolic, with added "poignancy," as Herbert puts it. That's why the story should be fully explored.

Some of us have warned about this kind of thing happening for years, with many in the media ignoring the effects of the war on our soldiers and veterans, or paying attention for just a short while and then moving along. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Salon's Mark Benjamin and Bob Herbert. The latter mirrored my view today when he wrote that he "couldn't have been less surprised" when he learned of the fratricide in Baghdad.

Herbert also observes: "The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And that nation's willful denial of that toll has been just as profound."

Suicides both in Iraq and among vets back home have been unusually high almost from the beginning of the war and have surged in recent months. Also truly shocking is the number of veterans with brain trauma or mental problems. These numbers get reported when a study emerges, then are forgotten. At least President Obama has upped money for treatment.

Nearly one in five American soldiers deployed in Iraq suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to an oft-cited RAND Corp. study. Use of anti-depressants in the war zones is widespread, a first in American wars.

Sgt. Russell, 44, was on his third tour in Iraq.

Too often the media treats our presence in Iraq as essentially benign now, ignoring the plight of those serving there, and the travails when they come home.

I have written about soldier suicides for almost six years now. I always have plenty to write about, unfortunately. And now, mass murder.

Paul Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said after the Russell incident: "Unlike during the Vietnam War, today's military is a professional, all-volunteer force. There have been only five cases of intentional fratricide by U.S. service members in Iraq. But these incidents, however rare, draw public attention to an important issue: the enormous stress on our armed forces. Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need. Over 600,000 troops have served more than one combat tour since 9/11. Military suicide rates have hit record highs every year since 2003. Much more must be done to address troops' psychological injuries before they reach a crisis point."

And remember: We still have as many soldiers in Iraq as we did before the surge -- and are sending thousands more to Afghanistan.

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell writes the Media Fix blog for The Nation. Mitchell is the former editor of Editor & Publisher magazine and author of nine nonfiction books. His current book, published in February 2011, is The Age of Wikileaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate. Previous books are Why Obama Won, published in January 2009, and So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq, which came out in March 2008. His new book and e-book is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made.  His Twitter feed is @MediaFixBlog.

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