This essay was first published on the website of the
Progressive Writers Bloc,
a cabal of peace activists living in California's southern San Joaquin Valley.
December 30, 2005
I have in front of me an appeal from the National
Mental Health Association, asking for support for Operation Healthy Reunions, a
“new, critical program” that will “aid soldiers in a successful transition and
reintegration into their families.”
The appeal is not written by an official of the NMHA, but by Captain Vanessa
McMillian White, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and lead officer of a 4-member
U.S. Army Combat Stress Control Team. The team is based near An Najaf, Iraq, and
offers “interventions to assist soldiers in handling the complexities of war,”
including individual counseling and stress and anger management. Another LCSW
and two mental health specialists make up the rest of the team. From the
photograph accompanying the appeal they appear to be a competent and deeply
“Unfortunately, we are very busy,” writes CPT White.
“The stress of living in a combat zone for months on end can be
overwhelming. ... What’s more, returning to America can be as hard on soldiers
as being away. Divorce rates for military families have skyrocketed in recent
years. More than a third of returning soldiers report mental disorders.
Incidents related to post-traumatic stress disorder have resulted in violence
and tragedy. You’ve seen the headlines. And it’s only getting
The Combat Stress Control Team needs more assistance than the military
provides, and Operation Healthy Reunions “will greatly fill the void” when they
return to help soldiers stateside, writes Captain White.
My bet is that there is more to the story.
On December 2nd, an old friend of mine died. Straight out of boot camp in
1944, Walt was a sergeant in charge of a machine gun squad in the Philippines.
He was on Okinawa for the mop-up, arguably as brutal as the initial Marine
landing. He came back from the war without benefit of a Combat Stress Control
Team, and like thousands of other combat veterans, he handled his psychological
wounds alone. He didn’t talk about the war much, and when he did, he never
mentioned the horror of it all. If he said anything, it was about camaraderie,
with an occasional story about a close call thrown in. But a few years ago,
after Alzheimers began to make its mark, he did say how awful it was—but just
barely. As a Kansas farm boy, he said, he wasn’t raised to bayonet wounded
Japanese soldiers as his squad raced forward to its objective. “No one should
ever have to do that kind of thing,” he murmured.
Walt had a benefit that our young soldiers in Iraq don’t have, though: he
knew that he was fighting a war that absolutely had to be fought. Whatever the
failings of European and American statesmen — failings that virtually guaranteed
that the first World War would be followed by a second one — the Nazis and
Imperial Japan had to be defeated. I suspect that one source of trauma for our
soldiers in Iraq today is their increasing awareness that this war was not
necessary—that they were sent to kill Iraqis on the basis of lies. I would be
surprised if our young soldiers, raised on the ideals of fair play and honesty,
and sensing that they were sent to Iraq under false pretenses, can casually
dismiss an Iraqi child blown to bits as mere “collateral damage.” To be
consciously aware of the deception is bad enough; for soldiers in denial, it
must be far worse. This is not a problem that Captain White could mention in her
appeal, of course.
Many readers of this page will accuse me of trading on Operation Healthy
Reunions to make a political point. Indeed—their suffering is inherently
political. Let me close with film maker Michael Moore’s closing comments in
“I’ve always been amazed that the very people forced to live in
the worst parts of town, go to the worst schools, and who have it the hardest
are always the first to step up and defend that very system. They serve so
that we don’t have to. They offer to give up their lives so we can be free. It
is remarkable, their gift to us. And all they ask for in return is that we
never send them into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary. Will they
ever trust us again?”
I have yet to read or hear a more eloquent expression of caring for our
soldiers. Go to nmha.org to learn more about
Operation Healthy Reunions.