published Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Cleaveland: Casualties of war take many shapes

American casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan steadily climb. More than 5,000 of our military have been killed and many thousands more wounded.

Though commanding fewer headlines, other reports regarding our military personnel are quite troubling. For 2008, our Army confirmed 128 suicides and 15 suspected suicides among active-duty personnel. The Marine Corps confirmed 41 suicides for the same year. This represents the highest rate of suicides among active-duty soldiers and Marines in the 29 years that records have been maintained.

In January 2008, an article in The New York Times described 121 instances where veterans who had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan had committed or been charged with murder. One-third of victims were spouses, children, other relatives or girlfriends. One-fourth of victims were fellow servicemen. Psychological trauma related to combat was cited as an underlying cause of some of these assaults.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, speaking on National Public Radio recently, estimated that 138,000 combat veterans of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A profound and disturbing new book, "The Good Soldiers," by David Finkel provides a clear picture of the environment in which many of our military men and women currently serve. Mr. Finkel spent eight months embedded with an infantry battalion, which was sent to Iraq as part of the "surge" of 2007. The 800 soldiers were assigned a bleak and hostile area of eastern Baghdad to pacify. Few journalists or politicians ventured into this dangerous region. His book makes the psychological stresses endured by service members understandable.

At random intervals, mortar and rocket fire hit the unit's base. Sniper fire was a continual risk. Most mornings soldiers left their base in armored vehicles to travel on exposed routes to patrol nearby neighborhoods. They sought allies and opportunities to rebuild civilian infrastructure. Hidden mines repeatedly wrecked trucks and heavily armored vehicles. Armor-piercing projectiles took a frightful toll on the troops who ventured from the base. Wounded soldiers sustained brain injuries and lost limbs, eyes, hearing. There were countless near-misses. Soldiers never knew which civilians could be trusted. A child at a roadside might be an innocent onlooker or a spotter for attackers. As tokens of good will, soldiers tossed soccer balls to children they passed.

The courage of soldiers and their devotion to each other was repeatedly tested and confirmed. Wounded soldiers were rescued under fire or pulled from flaming vehicles. In one harrowing episode, a soldier dived into a ditch of raw sewage to rescue a comrade trapped in a vehicle blown upside down by a hidden explosive.

On a furlough to America, the commanding officer visited casualties from his battalion at Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio. The wife and mother of a 19-year-old soldier who had lost four limbs and would soon die of severe burns maintained a daily vigil at their loved one's bedside as did other relatives for their people. Another soldier fought to overcome a brain injury. Each night, family members gathered in a hospital courtyard to draw strength and comfort from each other.

To deal with ever-present, intense stress and uncertainty, soldiers took medications prescribed for sleep and for depression and anxiety. Humor vied with outbursts of rage and frustration when attacks would kill or maim a friend. Goodwill and a desire to improve the lives of civilians competed with raw hatred when explosions hit convoys. Psychological meltdowns steadily increased with the length of deployment.

Five days from the end of its assignment, the unite confronted a sudden, coordinated, all-out attack from insurgents. The few Iraqi allies of the unit phoned for help that could not be delivered. On the eve of the unit's return home, attacks killed two and wounded others. A new water line built for a nearby town was destroyed. More than a year's efforts to restore utilities and to build relationships with the civilian population vanished.

Policymakers and members of Congress should read this book as they deliberate our nation's next moves in our wars. The costs of these wars to the Americans who fight them are staggering. David Finkel's narrative takes us from the safety of statistics to a battleground where few escape injury, physical, psychological or both. Those of us in the safety of our homes must assure that excellent, comprehensive treatment is accorded each wounded veteran.

E-mail Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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