Fighting the War at Home
A soldier returns safely after surviving sniper fire and roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the hypervigilance and suppressed emotions that kept him alive have taken a heavy toll.
I came home from Iraq in March 2004, yet I’m still fighting a war, a war here at home. It’s a war of shadows, one that no one seems to really understand. A war of anger and anxiety, fought in the recesses of my mind.
Just like in the two wars I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t know who the enemy is. There, insurgents take potshots at you, then go back into hiding. Combating post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is the same. Some days I feel as if I have the enemy on the run; other days it has me pinned down.
Approximately 22 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who sought care at the Veterans Administration suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 17 percent from depression, researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California-San Francisco reported in 2009.
A 2008 Rand Corporaton study, based on a smaller sample than the VA-UCSF study but including veterans who did not enroll at VA health centers, found that 14 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are affected by PTSD and 14 percent by major depression.
Stanford University and Naval Postgraduate School researchers who examined the delayed onset of PTSD found that, by 2023, the rate of PTSD among Iraq war veterans alone could rise as high as 35 percent.Show sources
"Trends and Risk Factors for Mental Health Diagnoses Among Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Using Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care, 2002–2008," American Journal of Public Health, July 2009
"Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery," Rand Corporation, 2008
"A Dynamic Model for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among U.S. Troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom," Management Science, September 2009Close sources
I am a former military policeman. I was among the first soldiers to move into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. For nine months, my company provided support for Rangers and special operations forces. We returned home in September 2002. Four months later, in January 2003, we were in Kuwait preparing for another war.
I remember the day we moved into Iraq. It was about a week after D-Day. As soon as we crossed the border, we saw cratered highways, dead bodies and burning vehicles.
For the next year, my company provided security for main supply routes and patrolled the streets of Mosul. There was never a firefight, just constant, low-level violence. Sniper fire, RPGs, IEDs and mortar attacks kept us on edge at every moment. We were hypervigilant. We couldn’t shut it off. It reached the point when we thought that anything could be a bomb, that anything on the road could blow up.
Now, the war is on my home front. I often ask myself, why am I still fighting? I’m safe now, aren’t I? But PTSD, like an insurgency, is elusive. It attacks from all angles, almost invisibly. The enemy is out there, but you don’t know when or from where an attack will come.
As a soldier, I saw things no one ever should. I once responded to a call from a field artillery unit that had shot an Iraqi who tried to flee a checkpoint. Have you ever seen what a .50-caliber round does to a person’s head? Imagine a large wooden mallet smashing a watermelon. The .50-cal. does the same. Brain matter was splattered all over the inside of the Iraqi’s truck. At the time, I didn’t feel anything. I felt numb. It was as if nothing had happened. No emotion at all.
In war, you learn to shut out such horror. It’s called “survival mode.” Your mind and body go numb. You don’t recoil from the horror; instead, you make jokes about it. Now, back home, I am still in survival mode. I block my memories by keeping a busy life. I’ll work 10- to 12-hour days, and attend college classes one to four nights a week. I do this because it helps me forget, it helps me shut out my war. But it’s still with me. My war’s always with me.