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Coming home in pieces

Today's wars have minted a new generation of physically healthy, psychologically damaged veterans.

Combat gear, referred to by soldiers as "battle-rattle." Photo: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Roland Hale/Released

By David Philipps

The following is adapted from “Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home,” a book about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),  specifically those of the 506th Infantry Regiment, who unleashed a series of brutal crimes on Colorado Springs after returning from a tour in Iraq. That regiment, which since World War II had been called the Band of Brothers, was renamed the Lethal Warriors after their second tour in Iraq, and true to their name, they brought the violence home with them.

It is true, as the authorities have said, that most of the soldiers who come back from Iraq never end up in jail. Many veterans whom I have met in the course of my research are kind, law-abiding and selfless beyond belief. But it is important to tell the story of this critical few in order to offer what the Army would call an “after-action review” — an inspection of what happened, why it happened and what can be done to keep it from happening again.

So what did happen to the Lethal Warriors? In short, hundreds of teenagers volunteered for the most dangerous job in the Army. They were conditioned through months of specialized drills to be disciplined, tough, brave and utterly lethal. Then they were sent to the deadliest places in Iraq. They came home to a hero’s welcome but were given little in terms of actual support for the invisible psychological wounds of war. Many were paranoid and quick to anger. Many felt unsafe and alienated back in the United States. Reintegration into civilian life was brief, and, by many soldiers’ estimations, a joke. The Army spent months and sometimes years teaching them to be warriors, then Iraq taught its own harsh lessons, but on return, these young soldiers, many just barely adults, were expected to figure things out on their own.

Many people I’ve spoken to don’t believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pack enough intensity to inflict much psychological damage on soldiers. After all, the conflicts have generated little of the all-out combat associated with World War II, and only 5,631 U.S. troops were killed in the conflicts by the summer of 2010 — a fraction of the 58,000 killed in Vietnam in about the same number of years. But the lack of massive offensives and the smaller number of deaths conceal the true toll.

Iraq and Afghanistan are new kinds of wars with new kinds of casualties. Though the wars have produced relatively few American dead, that is, to a large extent, because of new advances in body armored vehicles, and sophisticated lifesaving techniques. In the Civil War and World War II, one in three soldiers wounded in combat died from his injuries. In Vietnam it was one in four. In Iraq and Afghanistan it is somewhere around one in 15. This stunning advancement does not even count the thousands who, because of better armor, were never seriously wounded in the first place. A massive explosion that could have evaporated an infantry company in the Civil War might cause little more than a concussion to troops in an armored Humvee in Baghdad. Many of the soldiers later arrested for murder had been blown up half a dozen times and received barely a scratch. But that does not mean modern combat does not inflict wounds. These modern conflicts have produced tens of thousands of walking wounded hidden in the force. Nothing illustrates the new dynamic better than this: by 2009, while the United States was engaged in two separate wars, more soldiers died from suicide, drugs and alcohol than died by the hand of the enemy.

Many aspects of war have not changed for centuries. What General William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1879 is just as true of Iraq as it was of the Civil War: “War is hell.” Fear, blood, courage, grief, rage, violence, hope and hate have not changed much since Sherman’s day or since the earliest kickings of civilization. The smell of death and the sense of loss are the same. The shame and confusion are the same. The human psyche, which must process all these emotions, has not changed much in 40,000 years. Warfare has evolved, but the human brain’s ability to cope with it is still stuck in the Stone Age.

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The unique mix of lifesaving technologies, mood-stabilizing drugs and vicious Vietnam-style fighting in the current wars has minted a new generation of veterans who return home in one piece even though, inside, they may be in pieces. The effects are evident across the force. In 2009, the Army was giving 225,000 soldiers some form of behavioral health care. Almost half of them were on mood-stabilizing prescription drugs. Ten percent of the entire force had a prescription for narcotic painkillers — overwhelmingly OxyContin. Even the Army admitted there was likely widespread abuse. Most returning veterans are amazingly strong and resilient. With the help and support of families and communities, they can heal. But a few of the hardest hit by the war need special attention. In the case of the Lethal Warriors, many never got it. So the war spilled out into the suburbs of America, and a number of innocent people died.

It is critical that the lessons the Lethal Warriors have to teach not be ignored, because the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have the potential to create new soldiers just like them every day, and future wars will pose the same challenges. By ignoring the needs of these soldiers and others like them, the nation does a great disservice to its war fighters and to itself — one whose consequences became evident in the streets of Colorado Springs. If there is a lesson in the senseless bloodletting of the Lethal Warriors, it is that the nation needs to press for the safety, well-being and healing of combat veterans, even after the bullets have stopped flying. Doing this for the sake of the soldiers themselves would be enough to justify the cost and effort, but as the story of the Lethal Warriors shows, it is not just the soldiers who pay the ultimate price for the neglect. We all do. It is critical that we deal openly, honestly and intelligently with the true costs of war, and weigh them before we decide to wage it, or we will suffer the consequences.

Adapted from “Lethal Warriors” by David Philipps. Copyright (c) 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

David Philipps is a features writer for the Colorado Springs Gazette whose articles have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Seattle Times, among others. His coverage of the violence at Fort Carson won him the Livingston Prize for National Reporting, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.