War’s mental toll

The Iraq War is over.
“It must be over,” a British colleague of mine, still in Baghdad, wrote. “It must be because yesterday I saw the Yanks take down the flag. It was a rather anticlimactic end to eight and a half years of mayhem.”

Over 4,500 American servicemen and women have died since the Iraq War began. Many tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, too, in car bombings, suicide attacks, torture chambers, death squad hits, American bombings and assassinations. As terrible as this toll is, however, the long-term consequences of the American invasion of Iraq will probably continue to mount for years to come.

Sadly, many of these consequences are going to be just as challenging as the last eight years of mayhem my colleague described — harder to see, more difficult to assess and discuss and even harder to fix. I’m talking about the mental health toll that years and years of war will leave with American soldiers, sailors and Marines, their families and friends and the country that is still learning how to help them. I’m also talking about the collective trauma that some 28 million Iraqis continue to grapple with day after day.

Since the war began, many of the Iraqis I worked closely with have left their homeland and sought shelter abroad. One of them fled Iraq in 2008 after his 16-year old son was kidnapped, tortured and killed. When the father went looking for him, he too was tortured. He fled with his three surviving sons and now lives in Texas. His wife refused to come, preferring instead to remain behind so she can visit her dead son’s grave.

In this country, the Iraq War continues to take a toll on American soldiers and their families long after they return from the battlefields of Baghdad or Yussifiyah. In Phoenix earlier this week, a retired U.S Army sergeant who struggled with PTSD and mental health issues killed his wife. After killing his wife, the man turned himself into police, telling them he “snapped” and his military training “kicked in.” His Army colleagues told a local newspaper that roughly 90 percent of his unit was diagnosed with PTSD upon their return from Baghdad.

Stories like this are too numerous to count, and yet they will likely continue to plague this country for years. By most estimates, at least 20 percent of all returning Iraq War veterans are diagnosed with PTSD. These numbers don’t include the tens of thousands of private security contractors whose jobs put them in situations often just as dangerous and in many cases more dangerous than those of their active-duty counterparts. They too could face years of recovery from PTSD and without the assistance of the Veterans Affairs.

To its credit, the VA has ramped up efforts to cope with the increasingly large population of traumatized veterans suffering from crippling mental health problems related to the war. But it has not done enough. Veterans and their families regularly point out that the care they are offered doesn’t come close to what they require.

And what of the countless thousands of Iraqis who are going through similar traumas thousands of miles away? When last I visited, there were less than a hundred trained psychologists working in the entire country. Electric shock therapy was practiced regularly and frequently. Mental hospitals were in dire need of routine maintenance and help.

Now that the war is officially over, survival is going to require more than just dodging bullets. For Iraqis, Americans, everyone, it’s going to mean a full reckoning, and a slow process of healing. It’s not going to be easy. And it’s going to take a long time.

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