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Vol. LXIII, No. 6
March 18, 2011
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For Many Soldiers, War Doesn’t Stop After They Arrive Home

On the front page...

The nation has been at war for nearly 10 years, and those who have been fighting have borne a disproportionate burden of this responsibility for the country.

Only about one-half of 1 percent of the population is in the armed forces, which means a majority of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have endured multiple combat deployments.

Some don’t return, but the ones who do are often not the same.

A recent National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Innovation Speaker Series lecture offered listeners a sample of what today’s warfare is, what it does to service members and what we can do to bring them home both physically and mentally.

Continued...

  Combat veteran Todd Bowers speaks at NIH.  
  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
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 David Finkel
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Finkel

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.”NIHRecord Icon


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