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Bill Berkowitz: To Hell, And They're Coming Back

To Hell, And They're Coming Back

Iraq War veterans face formidable challenges and Bush Administration funding cuts
By Bill Berkowitz

On Wednesday, January 26, at 10:42 Pacific Coast Time, amongst the latest headlines from AOL News were "Marine Helicopter Crashes in Iraq, Killing 31," "Four Marines Killed in Ambush in Haditha," and "U.S. Soldier Dies in Attack on Army Patrol." According to an Associated Press dispatch, "It was... the deadliest day for U.S. forces since... March 23, 2003, when 26 troops were killed in various incidents during the U.S. military's drive to take Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein."

After the body bags are removed from the tarmac and the dead are buried; after children have said farewell to a father or mother and parents bid goodbye to a son or a daughter; after seriously injured soldiers are shuffled off to understaffed rehabilitation facilities and others are left to deal with their wounds on their own; and after soldiers that escaped physical harm return home with severe mental health problems, America will reap a whirlwind it hasn't seen since the end of the Vietnam War.

Julia Cortez Raya said that her 19-year-old son had served in Fallujah and "he came back different." On a cold winter Sunday evening in early January, in the small town of Ceres, California, Andres Raya -- who police say seemed determined to die rather than return to Iraq -- was killed in a gun battle with police after killing Ceres Police Sergeant Howard Stevenson Ceres and wounding another officer.

Twenty-four year-old Johnny Lee Williams, a discharged Marine who served one tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, was recently charged with the murder of Megan Holden, a Wal-Mart clerk he had abducted from the Texas store's parking lot. "They trained him to go to war and to kill," Williams' mother, Patricia, told ABC's Good Morning America. "How many months went into getting him back to living in society?" His father, Pastor John Williams said: "It's different. It's just out of character, it's not the son that I knew. No, I was surprised. It was a shock just to see him."

According to a transcript provided by the Media Research Center, ABC's Robin Roberts asked Williams' parents to explain the fact that "it was reported that even before he went to Iraq that he had trouble with the law -- criminal trespass was one, some drug violations. So there are a lot of people that are scratching their head this morning and saying how can you say it's just because or Iraq, Mrs. Williams, that this happened?"

Patricia Williams: "Our purpose for being here is to let the world know that there was a change in our son from growing up to be a happy-go-lucky person, was not a violent person, wanted to go to the Marines, excelled in whatever he attempted to do, pre-Iraq. When he came back, he was different. He was quiet, he was off to himself, he couldn't sleep, he slept in his clothes, had nightmares. We recently learned that he would ask friends to come over and just stay while he went to sleep because it changed him."

After four years in the Marines and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, James Brown moved from Dayton, Ohio to Los Angeles in search of a job. According to a Time magazine report, Brown, unable to find work, found himself in a 515-bed facility run by the public-private organization U.S. VETS.

Former Army specialist Herold Noel was found "huddled for warmth in front of a fire he built for himself in Brooklyn's Prospect Park as temperatures slid toward the single digits," reports John Tarleton of The Indypendent, an award-winning bi-weekly newspaper published by the New York City Independent Media Center. Noel, who had served in Iraq, was "plagued by nightmares and unable to hold a steady job or get the assistance he needed, [and]... was on the verge of losing his wife and three young children," after he returned home.

The stories of Andres Raya, Johnny Lee Williams, James Brown and Herold Noel are early warning signs that the war in Iraq is coming home with a vengeance. John Tarleton reports that "the experiences of Noel and others like him have many observers worried that the country will be inundated by a wave of returning veterans with no place to go and reeling from psychological trauma, as happened toward the end of the Vietnam War." A report in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that 17 percent of troops returning from Iraq "met the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

The New England Journal's figure may be on the low side. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Julian Guthrie, "Military officials and mental health providers predict that up to 30 percent of returning soldiers will require psychiatric services -- a number not seen since the end of the Vietnam War."

"The Bush administration didn't plan going into the war," Paul Reickhoff, the Executive Director of Operation Truth, a growing online organization of Iraq veterans, told Tarleton. "And they haven't planned for the back end of the war and the social services that will be needed. It's an extension of a flawed plan."

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight? Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish, Baring teeth that leer like skulls' tongues wicked? Stroke on stroke of pain, -- but what slow panic, Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets? Ever from their hair and through their hand palms Misery swelters. Surely we have perished Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished. Memory fingers in their hair of murders, Multitudinous murders they once witnessed. Wading sloughs of flesh these help less wander, Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter. Always they must see these things and hear them, Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles, Carnage incomparable and human squander Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented Back into their brains, because on their sense Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh -- Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses. -- Thus their hands are plucking at each other; Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging; Snatching after us who smote them, brother, Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

--Mental Cases, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

(Thanks to Joanne Laurier's "One in six US veterans of Iraq war suffers trauma disorders," published at the World Socialist Web Site)


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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