“What Have We Done To Our Soldiers?” or PTSD: The Cost of the Kill

I spent years saying that I shouldn’t have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I never rated a combat action ribbon (CAR) and I never engaged in a firefight. I ignored my mental health and allowed others to say I was fine because I was a girl and girls weren’t on the front lines, even if they didn’t know my story. My husband told me for many years to read a certain book that he thought would help me immensely. He became dedicated to understanding PTSD after experiencing my nightmares and stories and questions and after seeing so many of his Marines commit suicide and suffer daily. The book is called “On Killing” by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman of the United States Army. He was an Army ranger and a psychologist and used his experiences in both fields, as well as multiple scientific studies, to write about the way humans process killing and how America trains her military to kill.

I avoided reading the book until two years ago and read half of it rapidly before I couldn’t handle the ideas I had to think about when I read it. Now that I’m writing the Afghanistan story and coming to grips with my experiences, I was able to pick it back up and finish it. At the very end of the book, there is a section on “What Have We Done To Our Soldiers?” which has shone light, and almost a sense of validation, on why I, without the firefight and without the CAR, have PTSD. Comparing my story with the multiple points Lt. Col Grossman makes about current American warfare, I am blown away by what I realize wasn’t “normal” about my the current American warfighter experiences. We are trained to kill, to normalize ending another human’s life. The human psyche is fragile and we, the warfighters, suffer immensely to become killers.

To those veterans who are reading this and are thinking “Stop being a fucking pussy about it. Those who suffer remorse and self-disgust are fucking pussies who shouldn’t be in the military. Our grandfathers stormed the beaches and didn’t come back complaining about their precious mental health.”, I give you this:

In World War II, only 15-20 percent of weapons were fired. By Vietnam, the figures rose to over 95 percent. America adapted their training to increase this number and did so successfully at the cost of our troops.

Why are today’s troops suffering so much PTSD? Here are some of the bullet points that I found EXTREMELY enlightening:

Troops are young.

Most of the American military is recruited at 18 and during the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, saw combat before their 19th birthday. This is an extremely vulnerable time in a human’s emotional and mental development and the experiences of war impact young adults more deeply than an older adult because their brain is still forming.

There is no decompression time.

In WWII and prior, troops spent months and years traveling back home by foot or on troop carrier ships. The war would be over and they could spend this time readapting to civilian lifestyle before seeing non-military friends and family. This transport time was typically filled with discussions with fellow troops that allowed time to process, decompress, mourn, and heal. In the current military wars, it takes less than 30 hours to go from being in a firefight to being back with non-military friends and family. Think about that for a second. Think about it. Fighting for your life one second and hugging a flag waving Susan hours later, if you even have someone there to welcome you back.

There is no training with the whole units before combat.

Of course we train. Of course. But AS A UNIT? No, the American military changes and adapts so rapidly that troops are typically sent to a new unit in combat with no prior training with new guys with no warning. As seen by my story, I knew no one and I had trained with none of my fellow Marines. Unlike prior to Vietnam, my story wasn’t atypical of an American troop. You enter a unit as the fucking new guy and have to work to integrate into the camaraderie and trust of the unit. This is lonesome in a combat zone.

Deployment rotations disintegrate the unit.

Deployment rotations of 7-14 months drastically reduces the number of psychotic injuries on the battlefield because the troops can count down to when they will leave the war. However, combine this with the troops entering and exiting the units at different times, this leads to a further breakdown in comradery and troop cohesion. The troops aren’t fighting to the end of the war like they did back in WWII, they are fighting for 45 days and a wake up while their fellow troops are fighting for 120, or 30 more. There is no common end goal.

There is no end of the war.

There can be no signed armistice of peace because there is no defined enemy on one side of a front line. When troops leave a combat zone, they leave with no resolution and sometimes see all of their hard work gone to shit, like when Ramadi fell to ISIS in 2015. They see their sacrifices and their friends’ deaths as not being worth it because we will never win the new warfront.

There is no front line.

Everywhere is a battlefield, including the American bases, which means there is no demarcation point of safety. No front line also means no forward movement or visible progress for troop morale. This also means the lines for possible enemy combatants are blurred. Women and children are dangerous now, which affects our troops more than they realize. When I aimed my weapon at a child, a part of my humanity broke.

The book discusses so much more than the points I’ve talked about here. The science and psyche of mental health and combat is a vastly understudied area, especially for a country that has been at war for 93% of its existence.

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