Ghosts of Iraq

by twit

An insightful comment on a previous post raised an important point about the mental health effects of combat stress, and it reminded me of a recent news story that goes far beyond the cold statistics of the suicide rates for our war veterans:

From the Fort Mill Times on May 25, 2008:

Until the day he died, Sgt. Brian Rand believed he was being haunted by the ghost of the Iraqi man he killed.

The ghost choked Rand while he slept in his bunk, forcing him to wake up gasping for air and clawing at his throat.

He whispered that Rand was a vampire and looked on as the soldier stabbed another member of Fort Campbell’s 96th Aviation Support Battalion in the neck with a fork in the mess hall.

Eventually, the ghost told Rand he needed to kill himself.

… As the war dragged on and Rand was sent first to Kuwait, then Iraq, he told family members that he felt torn about the things he saw.

Once while wounded soldiers were being evacuated by helicopter in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, Rand waved at a man he knew. The man turned and Brian saw that half of the man’s face was ripped off.

Brian later told his sister he was shocked by how white the bones looked under the flesh.

Then one day, while standing guard near the Green Zone, Rand killed an Iraqi man.

“The spirit of the man that he killed didn’t leave him, it kept harassing him,” Somdahl said of her brother. “He said this guy is following me around in the mess hall, he’s trying to kill me. I told him to leave me alone but he says he wants to take me with him.’”

To help ease his nightly terrors, April would log onto her computer and talk to her brother over the Internet until he fell asleep.

She ended every conversation the same way.

“Sleep well, baby boy. Tomorrow is a new day.”

But when he returned from Iraq in 2005, Brian Rand was a different man.

His voice was distant. His jokes were morbid. He moved as if trapped in a nightmare.

At his family’s behest, he finally sought counseling at a hospital near Fort Campbell. He later told his sister the waiting room was full of soldiers who went in for 10-minute visits with a psychiatrist and came out with prescriptions for pills.

The psychiatrist spent nearly two hours with him and wrote an evaluation that suggested he not return to battle, Somdahl said. But that paperwork never made it to his commanding officer. That Sunday, Rand was told his unit was deploying back to Iraq.

His widow, Dena, said the military told her it has no record of the psychiatrist’s recommendation that he not redeploy to a combat zone or any record of requests during his first tour of duty for a mental evaluation.

Months after he returned to Iraq in November 2005, Rand picked up a fork, stabbed a fellow soldier in the neck in the mess hall, then crawled into the fetal position and sobbed. The soldiers in Rand’s unit picked him up and carried him over to a phone, dialed his sister and placed the phone to his ear.

“I asked why did you do that?” Somdahl said. “He said I thought I was a vampire. I said, you’re going to get a punishment, but maybe they’ll let you come home.”

They didn’t, at least not right away.

When he did return in August 2006, he answered “yes” to questions on a post-deployment health assessment form that asked if he was having nightmares, mood swings and felt hopeless, according to his wife, who has copies of his medical paperwork.

But his demons followed him home.

And this fallen soldier is not alone:

According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq.

A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.

Condolences to the family of Sgt. Brian Rand. It is impossible to express in words the gratitude this writer has for their decision to speak truth to power.

Rand’s family says a culture that often attaches a stigma to troops who seek help and a stop-loss policy designed to keep soldiers on the battlefield ultimately led to his death.

We don’t simply have a war overseas that must end as quickly and safely as possible. There is another war, taking place now in the United States, and our troops are dying on a massive scale as a result. Brave and strong men and women, our greatest generation, are losing their lives on American soil due to this war.

“Stop the War on Our Troops” could be a rallying cry against this crisis.

The war has come home.

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