"I am just trying to get help," insisted Jeff Hanks, active duty US Army infantryman, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "My goal in this situation is to simply heal. And they wonder why there are so many suicides." Jeff spoke rapidly over the phone from Virginia, where he, his wife and his two young daughters are staying while he is AWOL from the military. Days earlier, Jeff had walked out of an airport, refusing to board a plane headed for Kuwait, which was to be his first stop on his way back to Afghanistan.
During his mid-September leave from his second combat tour with the 101st Airborne Division, Jeff sought help from Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell military doctors for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical wounds sustained in battle. Yet, just as his treatment was getting started, his command interfered, insisting that his military health care providers grant him clearance for immediate deployment. His providers acquiesced, even though they had not completed preliminary testing.
Jeff, who has trouble being in large crowds of people and difficulty controlling his anger, says he is in no state to deploy back to the war from which he is still struggling to heal. The 30 year-old soldier decided that his only choice was to go AWOL. Jeff plans to turn himself into his command at Fort Campbell on Veterans Day, November 11. He will be accompanied by supporters, including members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
As the war in Afghanistan stretches into its tenth year, now the longest war in US history, Jeff's story has become all too familiar in a military that is overextended and exhausted, pushing soldiers beyond their mental and physical capacities in order to fill the ranks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by staggering rates of trauma and suicide. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of all service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered PTSD. Suicide rates among active duty service members are twice as high as that of the civilian population and veterans with PTSD are six times more likely to attempt suicide.
In response to these developments, Iraq Veterans Against the War have launched a campaign - Operation Recovery - calling for an end to the deployment of traumatized troops. This 2,000-strong organization, comprised of veterans and active duty troops who have served since September 11, 2001, insists that Jeff's situation is not isolated, but rather, has become endemic to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Many troops currently deployed to combat theater suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI] and Military Sexual Trauma," says Jason Hurd, a former soldier who served in Iraq and is active in the Operation Recovery Campaign. "We find this situation unacceptable and demand an end to these inhumane deployments."
Mental and Physical Wounds
Jeff, who grew up in Beebe, Arkansas, deployed to Iraq in 2008, a tour that eventually earned him a Combat Infantry Badge. During his time in Iraq, Jeff saw "the most brutal things of any of his deployments," he says. "It really bothered me. I think about it all the time." Jeff's Iraq deployment was marked by stressful combat patrols that kept him "always on edge." In 2008, he was witness to the aftermath of a car bomb explosion in a crowded marketplace in Balad, Iraq. It resulted in what he describes as "mass casualties." He saw one little girl, the age of his oldest daughter at the time, who had been gravely injured by the bomb, but still alive. "I can still see that little girl," he says. "I dream about her to this day."
Jeff says that he and others in his unit were not given adequate care for the mental wounds they sustained in battle, with mental health professionals only coming for short visits once a month. He describes his only experience seeing a therapist in Iraq: "It was a total joke," he says. "The guy just sat there and wrote stuff down and nothing ever came of it."
Jeff tells of one person in his unit who developed a severe drinking problem during his tour. "I know it stemmed from stuff he saw in Iraq," says Jeff. The command never pursued mental counseling of any kind for him. They told us not to speak to him and they eventually just kicked him out. He probably didn't get disability pay or anything."
"When I came home from Iraq I changed a lot. I noticed I had a lot of anger problems and I couldn't sleep," says Jeff. Family and friends noticed as well, and Jeff's coldness and distance began to eat away at his marriage, says his wife Christina. "When he came back from Iraq, he would look at me so cold. There was nothing in his eyes. That was the thing that bothered me the most. He was so unlike himself. The old Jeff used to joke around, he used to go out and socialize." The couple separated and Christina was left alone to raise their two daughters.
Jeff says that, back at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky, base where he was stationed, suicide was a widespread problem among the 101st Airborne Division. "There were multiples suicide attempts on base in Kentucky. For a while, we were having people kill themselves every other day," says Jeff.
After serving in Iraq, Jeff was deployed to Afghanistan May 3 of this year. "In Afghanistan, there is more of a constant threat than there is in Iraq," says Jeff, describing a deployment defined by constant mortar attacks, unclear missions and low morale among US soldiers. "We had no clear mission and nothing got done. We basically just sat in a valley waiting to get hit," he says. In one incident, five US soldiers were hit by a roadside bomb. "One died for sure and I don't know about the rest," says Jeff. "We had to sit on base and wait for them to be stabilized. We heard them screaming. It stuck with me. You can never get rid of that sound."
Jeff says that, like Iraq, medical treatment in Afghanistan was scarce and inadequate. "Combat stress people hardly ever came to the base. And it is hard to talk in a situation like that, since you are still in the war and on edge all the time," he says. On top of limited resources, people in Jeff's unit were teased and belittled when they asked for mental or physical health care. One private, who was blown back into a building after a mortar attack, complained of headaches and nausea to his command. "He was made fun of by the command in front of everybody," he says. "There is a saying in the military: What, you got sand in your vagina?" Jeff is certain that this dissuaded many who needed care from seeking it. "It keeps you from seeking help. I didn't seek help. I wanted to, but I would be ostracized."
Three weeks before going on leave from Afghanistan, a mortar went off near Jeff, blowing him up against a wall. He still suffers severe headaches from the incident.
When he went on leave from Afghanistan in mid-September, Jeff began to notice how profoundly he had been affected by his combat experience. He describes being seized with uncontrollable anger, having panic attacks at the slightest stimuli and being unable to relate to his family and loved ones.
Having reconciled with his wife Christina, he had been looking forward to spending time with her and the kids. "I had been so excited to see my family when I came home on leave," he says. "But when I was actually around them, they were just completely overwhelming."
"My daughters see how much Jeff has changed," says Christina. My older one says that daddy is not as nice as he used to be. She says 'I don't like daddy anymore.'"
In one incident, when Jeff and Christina were shopping at Walmart, Jeff was temporarily left alone when his wife went browsing in a different aisle. "I freaked out. There were too many people around me. I couldn't be left alone." Christina says she returned to find Jeff frantically insisting that they leave immediately.
Jeff tells of being afraid to sleep in the same bed as his wife, concerned that he would attack her in his sleep.
One day, Hank was overwhelmed with anger when a police officer "copped an attitude" toward his dad who had asked the officer for directions to a baseball game. "It triggered something in me," says Jeff. "I really wanted to hurt him."
"His mother has called me many times in tears about this," says Christina. "She knows her son and she knows he is different."
Jeff became concerned about whether he was fit for his imminent deployment. "If you have trouble controlling your anger at home, what are you going to do when you are in a situation holding a loaded weapon?" he asks.
In the Raleigh, North Carolina, airport where he was to catch a plane to Kuwait, Jeff had a panic attack in response to a stranger loudly clapping his hands. "I freaked out and was just like I gotta go. I can't do this," he says. Jeff walked out of the airport and checked himself into the Fort Bragg Emergency Room, the nearest military hospital.
Jeff was told by Fort Bragg doctors that they could not diagnose anything beyond the airport panic attack, because he was based out of Fort Campbell. Jeff arranged to meet his Fort Campbell command, where he was listed as AWOL for failing to board his plane. At Fort Campbell, he was passed around to various social workers, who eventually scheduled him an appointment with a mental health care doctor for Monday morning, October 11, at the Fort Campbell Medical Center. However, the Thursday before the appointment was to take place, Jeff's sergeant called him and said he needed to get immediate clearance to go back to Afghanistan that Friday, meaning he would never get to go to his scheduled appointment. Jeff later found out that his command called his doctors and order them to give him immediate clearance.
"I hadn't even been seen by a professional doctor," he says. "All I want is treatment. They were the ones who sent me over there. Now they won't even give me help when I need it." Jeff says he was determined to get help one way or another: "At that point, my only option was to leave."
Jeff has since been diagnosed by two civilian psychiatric professionals as having severe PTSD. He is currently weighing his options for meeting his urgent mental health care needs.
A Widespread Problem
"The redeployment of traumatized troops is a horrible problem," says Ethan McCord, a veteran whose unit was shown in the "Collateral Murder" video distributed by WikiLeaks. "I was denied treatment for the mental and physical wounds I sustained in battle, like so many others."
"In multiple units across all branches we're seeing commanders order service members to the battlefield who just aren't serviceable, says Chantelle Bateman, a former Marine who served in Iraq. "Rather than repairing them, we are sacrificing their long term well-being, their immediate safety and that of the people they are serving with."
As the wars drag on, veterans are demanding an end to the overextension and redeployment of wounded soldiers. On October 7, the ninth anniversary of the Afghanistan war, dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans marched from Walter Reed Medical Center to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to announce Operation Recovery. A campaign statement reads: "While we recognize that we must stop the deployment of all soldiers in order to end the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see the deployment of soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries and Military Sexual Trauma as particularly cruel, inhumane and dangerous. Military commanders across all branches are pushing service members far past human limits for the sake of 'combat readiness.' We cannot allow those commanders to continue to ignore the welfare of their troops who are, after all, human beings."
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), even if a military medical professional deems a service member unfit to deploy, a commanding officer can waive medical evaluation and order the service member into combat. While the DoD is not forthcoming about the rate at which this occurs, high rates of PTSD and multiple deployments suggest that cases like Jeff's are common. Almost 30 percent of troops on their third deployment suffer severe mental health problems. By 2008, nearly 33 percent of troops had served two tours to Iraq or Afghanistan, while 10 percent had served three tours, trends that can only increase as the war in Afghanistan reaches its tenth year. Today over 11,000 troops have served six tours, with each tour greatly increasing a service member's chances of developing mental health problems, including PTSD, TBI and combat stress, as well as military sexual trauma, caused by rape and sexual assault from within the ranks.
Top military brass acknowledges that suicides and violent crimes plague the military, with four combat veterans recently killing themselves at Fort Hood, Texas, in one week, one of them a suspected murder-suicide still under investigation. "The emergency issue for me right now is the suicide issue," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking person in the US armed forces.
The recently exposed kill team in Afghanistan, in which US troops hunted, killed and mutilated Afghan civilians, collecting their body parts as trophies, involved at least one soldier who was on a cocktail of medications for TBI.
"They are sending troops right back into the situation that traumatized them before they have the time to heal," says McCord. It's ruining our youth in the military. Operation Recovery is trying to stop this."
Jeff remains determined to get the mental and physical health care he needs and is working with the Operation Recovery team of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Courage to Resist to figure out how to meet his immediate health care needs. "Five to ten years from now, these people are not going to care about me. I don't want to be a basket case. I don't want to go to a school play of my kid's and freak out in a big crowd," he says. "I just want help and they want to send me back to war instead of helping me."
1. Seal, K. H., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., Gima, K., Chu, A., and Marmar, C. R. (2008). "Getting beyond 'Don't ask; don't tell': An evaluation of US Veterans Administration post-deployment mental health screening of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan." American Journal of Public Health, 98, 714-720. See also "Comparisons of PTSD rates" Journal of Traumatic Stress - Volume 23, Issue 1, February 2010.
2. "Suicide and PTSD," Department of Veterans Affairs; Armen Keteyian "Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans," CBS News, November 13 2007; and Mark Thompson "Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military" CNN, August 22 2010.
3. DDI 1332.14(8)c Updated: March 29, 2010.
4. The Alaska Army National Guard: A "Tremendous Shortfall," a report of the Veterans For America National Guard Program, October 15, 2008 and Mark Thompson, "America's Medicated Army" Time, June 5, 2008.