A Guest post from Robert Short Sr.
I know this isn’t what this blog normally posts, but I felt that this should be written.
Recently I was asked on Facebook, by someone who had never served, why would Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl want to commit suicide. It made me realize that there was this huge disconnect between what we – soldiers who were there – experienced and the mythos of our experience that the civilian world believes. I completed two tours in Iraq, 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, so some of these experiences might not apply to other times, such as the initial invasion; however, many veterans have fairly similar experiences.
We never see the enemy. I don’t mean ‘never’ like I never see the Skins win a Super Bowl. I mean “never” as in I never knowingly laid eyes on someone who I was sent there to fight despite having spent two years looking for them. Sure we were attacked repeatedly, people were hurt, trucks were destroyed, but never in all the miles we patrolled (~30,000 over two years) did I ever actually see any bad guys. And that’s the problem: for years I drove around waiting to be killed, without any way to stop it. It wasn’t about being better at your job, you could be sleeping or wide awake, it was all about how good the bad guy was. Just take a moment and imagine spending a year or more doing your job, surrounded by people, knowing that people were trying to kill you and your comrades, but having no way to identify them. It’s not something that you ever get used to, and you certainly don’t just leave that there when you return home either.
We love it over there, when we’re not on mission. Other than a few mortar attacks on post, only about a hundred or so out of the 600+ days I was in country, the base was pretty nice. Yes it was a half mile walk to eat and an eighth of a mile to the latrine, but you know how nice it is not to have to do laundry? Just drop it off and pick it up, washed dried and folded, a few days later? We would go work out for an hour, go play Call of Duty at the MWR and watch illegally downloaded movies. No bills, no responsibility, except for missions, it was nice.
Everyone wants out. But you’re stuck. You can’t leave and the gym, the MWR and the PX are the extent of your entertainment options. None of your loved ones are there, there is no sex, there’s no hanging out with friends or any actual time by yourself. This becomes especially hard when a significant life event happens, such as the birth of a child (my two oldest were born while I was in country), their first steps, or negative ones like a girlfriend/wife leaving you/cheating on you, or a death in the family. One of the three suicide attempts I saw while in the service happened when a guy waited in line for two hours (a pretty standard wait time) to call home and talk to his fiancé. She then told him that not only was she leaving him, but that she was pregnant by one of his friends back home whom she had been with since he had left the US five month prior. He walked out of the phone booth, pulled out his M9 and put it to his head; only the quick action by a passing soldier prevented him from doing it.
PTSD isn’t something weak soldiers get, it’s something every soldier gets. If someone tells you they were in combat and they don’t have any touch of PTSD then they are either lying or they view their symptoms as normal. The problem is that for a long time, going back to before Patton slapped that soldier, PTSD was viewed as a weakness. One thing about a soldier, he would rather die than be thought of as ‘weak’. So instead of getting help, soldiers will try to self-medicate, which is part of the reason alcohol abuse is so common. Some other percentage will try to remove themselves from the situation; maybe they go AWOL before the deployment or they injure themselves. Two cases of the latter that I personally experienced: one soldier refused to drink any water for a couple of days and took a diuretic till he finally went down and almost died of heat stroke; the other was a ‘tough’ guy who finally couldn’t handle being at the mercy of an enemy we never saw and slammed his head into an armoured door, fracturing his skull and getting him a one-way ticket home.
It’s hard to connect to people outside the veteran community. No one else understand us, or gets our dark humour. In the military you learn to laugh at things that ‘normal’ people would never laugh at, videos showing insurgents being killed or IEDs, or at jokes, like coming upon a blown-up convoy and how it was “raining Iraqi policemen”. If you don’t then you focus on the very real fact that you are only an instant away from being on the next video. Unfortunately, there isn’t an off switch, and like everything else, you have to relearn that it’s not appropriate to tell jokes about people being killed and the like. We end up hanging around with other vets, even before we know the other guys are vets, just because they’re the only ones who laugh at our jokes. In most of my college classes by the second week of class every veteran in the class was sitting on the same section of the room, it makes for interesting group discussions like, Normal Student: “We should invade Russia.” Veteran: “That is a stupid idea, why shouldn’t my kids have a father?” Normal Student: “What? I’m not talking about us going, I’m saying we should send the Army.” (By the way, that is a verbatim exchange between myself and another student in class.)
It’s hard to readjust to civilian life. Humour is not the only aspect of life that is difficult to readjust to. It’s simply hard for veterans to get a job. A recent Labor Department study said that young veterans had an unemployment rate of 25%, a Depression-era level. When you consider the two to three year wait time for the VA to process a disability claim, you end up with a huge group of veterans who need medical care, but can’t afford to drive up to two hours away to see a doctor and who can’t find work, basically living on welfare waiting for the services promised to them. It’s demoralising. Is it any wonder that every sixty five minutes a veteran decides it would be better to die than to fight on?
We live in fear of ‘The Question’ “So,” the guy says in a hushed tone, “Did you ever, you know, kill anyone?” It is the most feared question a veteran will ever encounter, if he never was forced to take another human life, you might think his service wasn’t as important. If he was forced to kill someone, then no matter what he says you have forced him to relive one of the most painful experiences of his life. Please just never ask this question.
We really do love Ron Paul, or we don’t care. Mainly because we want to come home, and because we saw the millions of dollars wasted, seemingly without purpose or reason on the wars. We were assigned multimillion dollar trucks, only to have them taken away weeks later, and replaced with new multimillion dollar trucks. Often they would have huge design flaws that were obvious to everyone on the ground and to the enemy, but those flaws seemed to escape whoever approved the truck. For example, one truck took 6 bottle jacks to change a tire, but it only came with one jack. The situation was complicated further by the fact that on a standard mission only five trucks would go out. Not that the lack of jacks truly mattered, since we weren’t issued any spare tires. If we were attacked and lost a tire we would have to call for a recovery, which meant sitting outside the wire for hours waiting. The response to this was either, “Who cares, there’s nothing we can do about it” or “We have to elect someone who will do something about it.”
Back to the Sgt. Bergdahl situation. From everything that has been reported I think he decided to kill himself but instead of using a gun he decided to use the Taliban. It doesn’t make sense that he wanted to join the Taliban to fight America, since he left millions of dollars of easily carried equipment behind, left his equipment in neat piles, and then left in a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a reflective belt. As for why he would want to end his life? Only he knows the exact reasons, but it’s an understandable one. Remember, in the time it took me to write this at least one other veteran made the same choice.
R.W.T. Short, Sr. is a US Army veteran of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. He is a civil libertarian and Veteran’s Rights activist, as well as a political consultant. He lives in Lynchburg, Va. with his wife of seven years, their three children, their dog Bellum, and a colony of former stray cats his daughter adopted. He can be reached via email at Robert.W.T.Short.Sr@GMail.com and on Twitter at @RobertShortSr.