The Iraq war may be over, but the battles themselves have left an imprint on those who fought them for the rest of their lives. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama honored a handful of veterans from that conflict with a dinner at the White House, stating, “You succeeded in your mission.” As an Iraq War veteran, I feel very strongly that this is true, but there remains a mission for both the U.S. government and the American people as a whole: take care of those who served.
The rallying cries to support the troops are always loudest during a time of war. But now that the Iraq War has come to a close and fighting in Afghanistan to soon follow suit, it is more important than ever to support the troops. Many of the battle scars of the Iraq war have become buzz words, like PTSD and MTBI, but behind each of them there are veterans suffering. It is the duty of the president and the government to ensure that as the fervor to support the troops in a traditional sense dies down, that the veterans are cared for.
While the technological advances in vehicle and body armor have saved countless lives, there has been a drastic increase in nonlethal injuries; soldiers now often survive the type of injury that would have been deadly in past wars. Those nonfatal injuries, however visible, are battle scars that veterans must live with for the rest of their lives.
Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is the most common mental injury suffered by Iraq War veterans. Posttraumatic stress has been referred to by numerous names throughout history. In the Civil War it was called “soldier’s heart.” In World War I it was called “shell shock.” In World War II it was called “battle exhaustion.” Toda, it is a fully established medical condition, but there remains a stigma of weakness for admitting to PTSD.
Traumatic brain injury is the most common physical injury of Iraq War veterans. A traumatic brain injury occurs when the force of a blast is so great that the impact causes the brain to smash against the skull. The damage that occurs as a result can leave severe and permanent disabilities.
I have personally felt the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. While I was serving as a truck commander, running convoy security outside of Baghdad, my vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). The force of the blast flipped the vehicle and knocked me, my gunner, and my driver unconscious. I regained consciousness to the sound of bullets ricocheting off the overturned vehicle. The rest of the battle was a blur that I still have trouble remembering.
Once we were safe and sound back at the base, the military medical staff determined that I had a Grade 2 concussion. I may never know the true extent of the damage to my brain, but I know that to this day I suffer from severe migraines. My gunner was not as lucky; the medical staff determined that he had suffered permanent brain damage.
There are nights, especially during thunderstorms, that I wake up in a panic because I think mortar shells are falling. There are days that I have difficulty functioning because of migraines stemming from the traumatic brain injury I suffered. At times, I even have difficulty relating to those who have never been in a war zone. But compared with the injuries and experiences of some Iraq War veterans, I got off easy.
What the American people need to remember is that the type of people attracted to the military are the same type of people who hate to ask for help or admit that they may have an injury. The veterans who need help the most are often the last ones to ask for it.
And to that end, many have not come forward, either because of a perceived stigma or out of sheer stubbornness. Many of the veterans who do not seek proper help will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. This leads to a self-destructive cycle for the veterans and those around them. I often hear from family members that their soldier never really “came home from war.”
Even the veterans who did not suffer a direct injury are forever changed. My father, a 21-year Army veteran himself, told me before I deployed to Iraq that a year at war is like a dog’s year—it counts for seven years. It is a disorienting shift, to put it mildly, to return home from a combat zone where people were actively trying to kill you. It is a harrowing environment and the change back to normal life can be extremely hard.
During President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he made a promise “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” This has become the motto for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the front line for helping veterans deal with the effects of war. I would encourage the president to take direct and effective action to support and maintain a robust and fully funded Department of Veterans Affairs. And, regardless of your stance on the war fought in Iraq, I would encourage each of you to not only thank a veteran, but to do your part to help them live with their battle scars. Don’t forget to continue to support the troops even though the Iraq War is over.