||Combat veteran Todd Bowers speaks at NIH.
NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel opened the
talk by recalling his institute’s role in the
Army’s STARRS program—Study To Assess
Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers—which
was started in response to the high rate of suicide
experienced by members of the military
returned from war.
While Insel called the study itself a “big investment
in money and time,” he emphasized the
importance of not losing sight of the people
at the heart of this program, the soldiers. “We
need to hear about this experience from people
who have been close to it.”
Todd Bowers, a staff sergeant in the Marine
Corps Reserves, is deputy executive director of
the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America,
a national non-profit dedicated to connecting
new veterans to services and to each other. A
decorated Marine, he has been on two tours in
Iraq and has also been deployed to Afghanistan.
As a civil affairs specialist, his job has been liaison
with the country’s locals to reduce civilian
interference with military operations. But that
doesn’t mean he hasn’t been shot at or had to
use his weapon.
|Army Lt. Col. Philip Holcombe
In 2004, during his second deployment to Iraq,
Bowers not only fired, but also took enemy
lives. He also got lucky, on Oct. 17, 2004.
“I was aiming my weapon and [an incoming] bullet
stuck in my scope,” he said, marveling at how
that slim tool mounted on top of his rifle took
the shot that would have hit him in the head.
“You cannot plan for where bullets land and
where bombs go off. It wasn’t until I got home
that I realized it was going to be hard to adjust.”
Things were even harder after his trip to
Afghanistan. Previously, he had known people
who had died in the line of fire or who had suffered
devastating wounds. But it was in Afghanistan
that he lost a teammate, a friend from
home. It was as if the wall between his military
life and his home life had crumbled.
“When you go into war, you go into this bubble
and that was the first time it ever popped while
in theater,” Bowers said. “I could not fathom
how I was going to come home.”
David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
with the Washington Post who embedded
with an infantry battalion during the Baghdad
surge of 2007 and 2008, spoke of what he
learned during his 15-month tour, an experience
that produced a book, The Good Soldiers.
“The typical guy was 19 years old. Most had not
been out of the country. There was a lot of naïveté,”
he said. “And then, war did what war does.
They lost a guy and then lost a couple more guys.
There were even more wounded. The enemy
weapon of choice in that area was the explosively
formed penetrator,” a device similar to an IED,
but specifically designed to pierce armor.
|Pulitzer-prize winning journalist
To illustrate this deadly contraption, Finkel
played a short video that was recorded from
inside a Humvee. As a truck in the convoy
exploded, the audience winced.
Finkel told the stories of several soldiers whose
injuries may not have been visible but were
nonetheless real. One carried a bleeding friend
down a flight of stairs, only to be unable to get
the taste of his friend’s blood out of his mouth
months, even years, later. Another did his job
so well he now fears he has become a monster.
One team leader sent a truck of soldiers down a
road, only to have them run into an IED, killing
two of them.
“He [unfortunately will] think about that decision
for the rest of his life,” Finkel said. “Some
said they were fine and they were; some said
they were fine and they weren’t. But most of
these guys are in the great middle.”
It’s in this area of mental health that Army Lt.
Col. Philip Holcombe, a psychologist with the
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological
Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI),
said there is much work being done in the area
of TBI and PTSD. Studies like STARRS, as well
as research and treatment conducted by the
Defense Centers of Excellence, are leading the
charge, he said.
“It’s going to take a series of efforts joined
together over time to handle this,” he concluded.
“We’re not going to swallow this elephant
whole. We have no choice but to confront
this issue. We have to do this to call ourselves
humane. We must serve those who serve.”