Lauren Hale insists we cannot let the actions of one lone soldier sully the outstanding and continued service of millions of active and veteran members of our military.
This past Sunday, in a world far removed from that of most Americans, a soldier, sent there by our country, strode into homes in a small Afghanistan village and brutally murdered locals, including women and children. Why?
This soldier, now known to be Staff Sergeant Robert Bales of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade – 2nd Infantry Division, signed up to go to war after 9/11 with a strong sense of patriotic duty. He served three tours in Iraq. He has a family. Now, 11 years later, Bales will arrive in Ft. Leavenworth, KS on March 16, 2012, the alleged sole perpetrator of a horrific massacre in Afghanistan. From patriotic American citizen to decorated soldier to military prisoner.
Reading Michael Kamber’s “Repeating Iraq’s mistakes in Afghanistan” is a good place to start when trying to understand the situation in Afghanistan. We have soldiers in a foreign country which does not want them there. They’re fighting to bring democracy to a broken country, to keep the Taliban from regaining a stronghold, and to liberate their citizens. Yet these soldiers are making more enemies with daily routines and are unable to hold areas outside their own bases.
Kamber, a photographer who spent time in Afghanistan, claims US Marines were unable to control the area directly outside their base: “When I was in Sangin, in Helmand Province in 2011—where the British had been decimated in 2009 and 2010—the US Marines who took over from the Brits did not control even the perimeter of their firebase. On my first patrol, we walked less than 100 meters outside the wire before finding two IEDs buried in our path. Eventually, we continued on a short march through a hostile, silent village. The pathways were deemed too dangerous; the Marines blew holes, shortcuts in effect, through the walls of villagers’ compounds, further alienating locals, then quickly headed back to base.”
A day in the life of an active-duty military service member isn’t easy. There are no breaks. Your day is done “when the mission is complete” according to the US Army’s own website. That day isn’t spent behind a desk and reading research or punching in numbers. You’re carrying a weapon. Eating MRE’s, which some days, you’d rather not eat, so you lose weight. You don’t shower. Enemies are set on killing you with bombs, missiles, bullets, whatever they can get their hands on.
In a world filled with constant threats requiring hyper-vigilance, you are trained to react before thinking. Thinking first gets you killed. Your goal, as a military man, is to complete your mission and then not get killed while doing it. The issue though, is that for many, repeated exposure to this environment is known to cause anxiety issues, increased stress, and many find themselves struggling with PTSD after returning home.
“Psychologically, the war never ends. There is no such thing as a “rear area” anymore. I was in the shower during a rocket attack. I could feel the impacts, but what was I going to do standing there soaking wet covered in soap?” an unidentified veteran shared with me as an example of a typical day on the front line in Iraq.
Thanks to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, troops are now intimately screened for mental health issues upon returning home. The number of positive screens however, increases to 27% after their 3rd tour. This begs the question, how long is too long in a war zone? Are we unnecessarily putting the mental well-being of our soldiers at risk here? At what point do we hold commanding officers responsible for the soldiers under their direction? Should we?
The actions of one man are not enough to lead us to officially question the actions of all our military members in service or their commanding officers in Afghanistan. But with the burning of the Q’ran, Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, and now this past Sunday’s massacre, all within two months, perhaps it’s time we scrutinized the intense stress our service members continually experience while serving our country. When stress, exhaustion, and fatigue lead to a breakdown on the front lines, the person breaking down is not the only person in danger. The entire platoon or camp is in danger. There’s a butterfly effect the military needs to be vigilantly aware of and proactive in handling.
What about Staff Sergeant Bales? Is he wholly responsible for his actions if, as his attorney is now claiming, PTSD is at the root of his behaviour? Ultimately, this depends on argument of rational capacity, the idea that someone committing a crime knows what he or she is doing and knows it is wrong or illegal. Bales, upon capture, invoked his right to silence and demanded an attorney.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales served three tours in Iraq and had been told his third deployment would be his last. It has also come to light that he and others were indulging in alcohol in the hours prior to his deadly rampage. Also surfacing is the story of a fellow soldier who’s leg had been blown off hours before the Staff Sergeant’s actions. The picture is slowly coming into focus but I don’t doubt for a second we will ever see the entire frame. Instead we will be left to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
Is the mission in Afghanistan, now that Bin Laden is dead, really worth the continued battle and downwards spiral? Why are we still there if we are more unwanted than wanted? Are we doing enough for our veterans once they come home?
American veterans, according to David Dobbs in “The VA Fails at PTSD treatment -Again” suffer PTSD at a rate two to five times higher than that of their UK or other counterparts of the same conflict. What are we not doing right in helping them? According to Dobbs, the VA benefits are getting in the way as we currently “pay” our veterans to stay sick, i.e., they lose their benefits if they heal.
There is also the issue of symptoms of PTSD, one of which is a key attribute for the battlefield – hyper-arousal. You’re not even encouraged to recognize PTSD as a potential issue unless symptoms last longer than 4 weeks.
We are pushing our soldiers to the brink and some of them are going beyond. Should we be surprised? No, as many of them, according to an article at Gawker, have now served more time in active duty than in those who served in the Second World War, especially if they have served three tours like Staff Sergeant Bales.
Should we be okay with their actions and brush them off as rooted in PTSD? Absolutely not. If every service member were behaving this way, then possibly. Even the IAVA issued a statement condemning the massacre in the Kandahar province:
“Our entire military and veterans community is shocked and saddened to learn of the shooting incident in Kandahar province. IAVA supports an immediate and thorough investigation by the Department of Defense into this appalling incident. Our thoughts are with the victims involved in this tragedy, and with all our troops serving in harm’s way in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, U.S. troops have faced extraordinary circumstances on the ground, and we are deeply concerned about the impact this particular incident will have on their safety,” said IAVA Founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff.
“As commanders gather the facts, we encourage the public and media worldwide to refrain from rushing to stereotypes. This horrific act appears to have been perpetrated by one soldier. It in no way reflects the behavior of the almost 2.4 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. Our troops continue to serve honorably—many on second and third tours—in unimaginably tough conditions. We must stand together as a nation to ensure their exceptional service and leadership in Afghanistan and throughout the world is not tarnished by this one incident.”
The US Army issued a statement as well, on their Facebook page:
“We offer our deepest condolences for the tragic incident in Kandahar province earlier today that resulted in the loss of life and injuries to Afghan civilians. This incident does not reflect the values of our people or the commitment of our forces to protecting innocent civilians. An investigation is now underway and every effort will be made to establish the facts and hold accountable anyone who is responsible for this tragedy.”
As we wait and watch, together –as a nation, and as a world– as the events of this past Sunday in the Kandahar province unfold, we each form our own opinions. As I was reading and researching for this piece, a quote flew by me on Twitter. I grabbed it because the apropos nature of it was not lost:
“Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.” -Epicetus.
With the way news works these days, we hear of horrific events every moment of every day. We are in danger of numbing to the horror. The manner in which we internalize what has happened holds the greatest potential to affect us, not the event themselves, unless we were actually present. Our reactions are passive while the reactions of those in the field are required to be dynamic.
As hard as an event like this is to swallow, it has happened. Now, dominoes continue to fall in the wake left behind. Infuriated and grieving family members and survivor accounts call for increasing the speed at which we leave Afghanistan, and a slow leak of details regarding the reality of this horrific event all unfold with each passing hour.
As we wait, however, we cannot let the actions of one lone soldier sully the outstanding and continued service of millions of active and veteran members of our military. To do so would be dismissive, divisive, and absolutely unpatriotic.
If you or a loved one are a member of the military and believe you may struggle with PTSD, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You can go here for a free online anonymous screening. If you’re suicidal or don’t know where to turn, please call the Veteran’s hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Don’t suffer in silence.
AP Photo/Rahmad Gul