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American journalist Dahr Jamail has written two books on the fallout of the US occupation in Iraq. In an interview over Skype Jamail told Moyna how widespread post trauma stress disorder (ptsd) is among soldiers. Edited excerpts
What do US soldiers deployed in Iraq face?
Severe mental problems. The dominant one is ptsd. It leads to depression, manic depression, paranoia and other mental health imbalances.
The most specific survey I have come across was conducted by the non-profit research institute rand Corporation. Though a bit dated the survey gives us some idea of the scale. In April 2008, figures show, over a fifth of the war veterans coming from Iraq and Afghanistan reported ptsd. According to the survey of 1.6 million troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 reported ptsd. I think the numbers should actually be the other way round: four-fifths of the war veterans have some kind of psychological problem or physical trauma.
What is the military doing about these soldier patients?
In an ideal world when you suffer trauma you talk to a friend or a therapist. But in Iraq soldiers witness trauma regularly and are encouraged not to talk about it. There has been a recent military propaganda claiming they “encourage soldiers to come out and talk about their trauma and also provide the soldiers psychological evaluations”. But according to those within the military, soldiers coming back from Iraq are basically made to sit through a little class one day. After the class the soldiers sign a sheet saying ‘Ya, I am not suicidal’. Then they are discharged. In late 2008 there was a report stating that 38,000 soldiers who were listed as ‘medically unfit to be deployed’, mostly because they were suffering from ptsd, were deployed anyway. We know that the number has gone up but that is the last statistic given by the Pentagon.
Another reason is the stop loss policy, where soldiers are sent back repeatedly. A soldier I interviewed informed me that when he sought help for ptsd just before he was redeployed, he was given sleeping pills and told the rest, including counselling, would happen in Iraq. That did not happen. The army is so strapped to keep enough boots on the ground that they are just doping these guys up and sending them back over.
Is there a count of suicides by soldiers?
The army did not start keeping suicide statistics till the 1980s. They admit that 2006 was a record in the army but that was surpassed every year. I don’t have the exact figures. In 2006 approximately there were 125 suicides that the military admitted to. Next year the number was around 140 and the next year they admitted to around 150. These numbers are only the official account. I know for a fact that the number is much higher.
Tell me about a severe ptsd case you have come across.
One of the soldiers I interviewed is Brian Castler, a former marine who has done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He told me he couldn’t quit thinking about the war, he couldn’t sleep at night, he dreamed about it all the time even though he had been discharged over a year ago. He had rage against the military for making him part of all that. Often he’d be driving down the highway at night at a high speed and he would close his eyes for like 15 seconds to play a game to see if he would hit anything.
What happens to the world view of soldiers back from war?
Too often the soldiers are not aware of the distress they are under as a result of the military culture. You are aware of people being killed every single day around you, so you become desensitized to that. You start making dark jokes about it. They dehumanize Iraqis; call them names like hajjis. ptsd is part of the sociology of the US military in an occupation. So if you are not making sick jokes and taking tonnes of the medicines like sleeping pills then you are just not part of the group.