US Soldiers Brain Injured
- US soldiers in Iraq suffer horrific brain and mental injuries
By Rick Kelly
20 November 2004
According to official figures, the Iraq war has so far
seen 9,000 US soldiers wounded in action, in addition
to the more than 1,200 troops killed. These wounded,
whose numbers may well be underestimated, include
those with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, lost limbs and
other injuries caused by landmines and bombs. Less
well known, however, is the terrible toll enacted
through brain and psychological injuries, which
frequently have devastating and permanent effects.
The war has seen unusually high rates of traumatic
brain injury (TBI). This head injury causes life-long
damage in many cases. Symptoms include memory loss,
difficulty with attention and reasoning, headaches,
confusion, anxiety, irritability and depression.
TBI rates in previous wars have been estimated at
about 20 percent. In July, a San Francisco Chronicle
survey of troops being processed through Walter Reed
Army Medical Hospital in Washington DC indicated that
as many as two-thirds of all soldiers wounded in Iraq
suffer from the condition.
The increase in brain injury cases is largely due to
the advanced body armor and helmets now used by US
forces. As the death rate of wounded troops has
declined compared to previous conflicts, the rate of
TBI has shot up. The nature of the Iraq war has also
increased the number of brain injuries. Rocket
propelled grenades, mortars, and other explosive
devices cause concussive shock blasts damaging to the
Traumatic brain injury often goes undetected until the
affected soldier returns home and his or her family
notices that something is wrong. The San Francisco
Chronicle reported on the case of Sgt. 1st Class Alec
Giess, of the Oregon National Guard, whose truck
rolled over him as it crashed while avoiding a
suspected land mine:
"Geiss' wife, Shana, noticed after his return that the
easygoing, relaxed dad who went to Iraq had become a
quick-tempered man who couldn't remember the family's
daily schedule, jumped up screaming when the family
cat landed on his bed and couldn't tolerate crowds.
The world inside his head, Giess said, was even
stranger: he felt bewildered, with no sense of time
other than `daytime' and `nighttime.' He also felt cut
off from his emotions. `When my kids come and hug me,
I don't feel a thing,' he said."
Many other incidents of TBI are even more severe. ABC
News reported last month on the situation in one
Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, California.
"The majority of [TBI patients], they're incontinent,
both bowel and bladder, so we have to retrain them
when to use the toilet, how to use the toilet," nurse
manager Stephanie Alvarez said.
Each patient at the facility is given a "memory book,"
which describes that day's schedule, and other
important information. For many wounded soldiers this
includes a reminder of why they are in hospital. "I
had a head injury from an explosion in Iraq on June
14, 2004," one soldier's book read.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
The US military is also experiencing a very high rate
of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among troops.
Many of the symptoms are similar to traumatic brain
injury. Post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers can
experience feelings of detachment and isolation, poor
concentration and memory, depression, insomnia,
flashbacks, as well as headaches, gastrointestinal
complaints, and immune system problems. Like TBI,
soldiers suffering from psychological disorders have
high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.
A study published by the New England Journal of
Medicine in July found that up to 17 percent of the
surveyed Iraq veterans suffered from PTSD, generalized
anxiety, or major depression. This probably
underestimated the true scale of the problem, since
the soldiers in the study served in the early phase of
the war, before the Iraqi resistance really
"The bad news is that the study underestimated the
prevalence of what we are going to see down the road,"
Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the
Veterans Affairs (VA) national center for
post-traumatic stress disorder, told the Los Angeles
Times last Sunday. "The complexion of the war has
changed into a grueling counterinsurgency. And that
may be very important in terms of the potential
toxicity of this combat experience."
"This is urban warfare," declared Dr. Alfonso Bates,
the VA's national director for readjustment
counseling. "There's no place to hide in Iraq. Whether
you're driving a truck or you're a cook, everyone is
exposed to extreme stress on a daily basis."
There have been at least 30 reported suicides among
soldiers in Iraqa rate nearly one-third higher than
the Army's historical average. Many more suicides
occur in the US by those who have finished their tour
of duty, but since the Pentagon does not track these
incidents the number is not known.
Associated Press, however, reported on October 18 that
at least 12 Marines had killed themselves after
returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. "Military people
are heavily vetted for any psychological problems
before they enter the service," noted Steve Robinson,
executive director of the National Gulf War Resource
Center. "They're screened very well when they come in,
and they're supposed to be screened very well when
they leave. So when a Marine takes the ultimate step
of checking out by taking his own life, it should make
the hair on the back of your neck stand up. These are
the guys who aren't supposed to do that."
There is mounting evidence that the rate of suicide
and psychological disorders is at least partially due
to the brutality of the US-led occupation. Most of
those serving in the military were drawn from working
class and impoverished rural regions, and enlisted
either to get a job or to advance their education.
These young people have been dispatched to a war that
was based on a series of flagrant lies, and that
violated numerous precepts of international law. They
are now being ordered to intimidate and terrorize the
Iraqi people, and to crush any resistance to the
occupation and Iyad Allawi's stooge interim
government. The killing and brutalization of the Iraqi
people has triggered guilt, shame and serious
psychological problems for many soldiers.
Last month Associated Press reported the case of
Jeffrey Lucey, a 23-year-old Marine who suffered from
serious depression and became dependent on alcohol
after returning from Iraq in July 2003. On Christmas
Eve he told his sister how he had been ordered to
shoot two unarmed Iraqi soldiers. "He took off two dog
tags around his neck, then threw them at me and said,
`Don't you understand? Your brother is a murderer,'"
she recalled. Lucey killed himself in June.
Former Army sergeant, Matt La Branche, told the Los
Angeles Times that the memories of his nine-month
stint as a machine-gunner in Iraq left him "feeling
dead inside." He constantly struggles with the image
of the Iraqi woman who died in his arms after he had
shot her. The woman's children were also wounded in
the incident. "I'm taking enough drugs to sedate an
elephant, and I still wake up dreaming about it," he
Affected soldiers receive grossly inadequate treatment
from the military establishment. Brain trauma and
psychological injuries often require months of
expensive and intensive rehabilitation, long-term drug
therapy and psychological counseling. Facilities that
were already underfunded and overstretched are now at
Receiving treatment is especially difficult for
sufferers of PTSD. Army psychologists are pressured to
get their patients back out in the field as soon as
possible, while the macho culture cultivated within
the ranks leads many soldiers to deny that they have a
problem. The New England Journal of Medicine study
found that less than half of all soldiers affected by
PTSD sought treatment, fearing stigmatization or
damage to their careers.
Officials also leave many families of PTSD sufferers
completely unprepared for the shock of having to deal
with the condition. One woman told the New Yorker how
she had been advised prior to the return of her
husband from Iraq: "When he was coming home, the Army
gave us little cards that said things like `Watch for
psychotic episodes' and `Is he drinking too much?' A
lot of wives said it was a joke. They had a lady come
from the psych ward, who saidand I'm serious`Don't
call us unless your husband is waking you up in the
middle of the night with a knife at your throat.' Or,
`Don't call us unless he actually chokes you, unless
you pass out. He'll have flashbacks. It's normal.'"
Such treatment is indicative of the way in which tens
of thousands of young people are being used as cannon
fodder in Iraq. Responsibility for their suffering
rests with the criminals in the White House who
launched the war of aggression, and more broadly, the
entire US political establishment which is united on
maintaining the indefinite occupation of Iraq.
One in six US veterans of Iraq war suffers trauma
disorders [9 July 2004]
Testing of New York guardsmen: first confirmed cases
of Iraq war depleted uranium exposure [21 April 2004]
Washington conceals US casualties in Iraq [4 February
Alarming rise in suicides among US troops in Iraq [5
America's maimed come home from Iraq [30 July 2003]
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