Saturday, September 27, 2008

I don't have words for this

After McCain's shameless use of the troops as a prop to his failing campaign in the debate I read this tragic tale of a loyal marine with PTSD in the New Yorker. The whole essay is worth reading--especially against the background of a previous New Yorker piece on PTSD and new methods of treatment.

“You cut him and he bled green,” she said, ... She meant that her late husband’s devotion to the Marine Corps was total. A portrait of Twiggs in full dress uniform hung near the front door of her house, a few miles south of Quantico, in Virginia. A shadow box of his medals and ribbons stood near the dining-room table. His ashes sat on a mantel in a brass case decorated with the Marine Corps eagle, globe, and anchor.

I heard the same thing from Twiggs’s fellowmarines. “He was the strongest person I ever knew in the Marine Corps,” Chris Wahl, who served under Twiggs for four years, including two deployments to Iraq, and now owns a bar in Buffalo, said. “Just a sick motherfucker all around, and I mean sick in the best way possible. He knew how to lead men.”

Later, the police who searched for him remarked “I’ve made a lot of wanted posters,” ... “But this was the first time I had to crop out the President.” Two or three weeks before he killed himself, Travis had had a "photo op" with Bush, embraced him, and expressed his willingness to continue serving Bush in Iraq.

Who was this guy? Just a believer: More...

Travis never doubted the wisdom of the war, Kellee said, and he was frustrated by the press coverage it got. “He could see how it was helping people. But all they showed were the bad things. His thing was, everybody flew flags after 9/11 for seven, eight months. Then it got ‘old.’ He was pissed about that. Americans didn’t appreciate the military. Then, after his third tour, we’d be watching the news and there would be some horrible American shit going on—some adoption-fraud scam, or some people who threw a baby into a lake in a garbage bag. And Tebeaux would just start crying and shouting, ‘What the fuck am I fighting for?’ ”

Kellee said, “Nobody even noticed it in Two-Six”—Travis’s battalion—“but I did. He got so twitchy, it became impossible to cuddle with him. He loved movies, but he couldn’t sit still to watch one. You could just see the wheels turning. You wanted to keep him busy, keep him talking about things so he wouldn’t start talking about other things. He’d get upset when people asked him stupid things, like did he kill anybody, and he wouldn’t talk, but other times he’d start talking about I.E.D.s, and how horrible they were, how they put soap in them, so it sticks to you, and how they can detonate them with anything—a cell phone, a walkie-talkie. He’d hear a car coming up our gravel road here and he’d just hit the floor, just bam, because the tires crunching sounded like machine-gun fire to him. Or he’d just go sit upstairs and watch for lights—watch for Iraqis, because that’s what he used to do in Iraq. I’d call his name, get him back to bed, and the only way I could get him to sleep was to put him in a bear hug and rock him. Then he’d sleep. But as soon as I moved he’d wake up.”

Travis started drinking heavily, and having trouble concentrating. “His therapy was to cut the grass, with his iPod on,” Kellee told me. “He did that a lot.”

It was dark now, with a full moon rising. Kellee hadn’t touched her food. “He volunteered,” she said. “We volunteered. He did what he did because he was fucking awesome, and he kicked ass because he loved his country. And when he got sick, got saddened, his government, his Marine Corps, let him down.”

What leaped out at me was that this marine returned voluntarily to Iraq three times, at least once two many according to his doctors and other soldiers around him, both because he believed in his mission and because his symptoms of stress, rage and confusion would magically disappear once he re-entered the theater of war.

And for years Travis did manage... But after each overseas deployment the transition to family life grew more difficult. “I was more irritable, paranoid for no reason, unable to sleep,” he wrote, in the Marine Corps Gazette. He was not being forced to return to Iraq, though—he was volunteering. The moment that a new deployment, with Kellee’s tearful acquiescence, was in sight, he wrote, “my symptoms went away. After all, I was going back to the fight, back to shared adversity, where the tempo is high and our adrenaline pulses through our veins like hot blood.”
The article goes into excruciating detail about what a great marine he was, how loved by his friends and troops, how devoted to his family, and how utterly destroyed he was by the hypervigiliance required by Iraq and by his own feelings of guilt that he couldn't protect his troops from harm. Reading this story its not hard to see why people like McCain keep meeting up with troops who re-enlist voluntarily. But its hard to imagine reaching McCain's age and station without grasping that they do so because they have ceased to be able to function in the regular America they have set themselves the task of defending. Over and over again the article makes the point that Travis, a top soldier, was simply out of control of his feelings and his responses to everyday stimuli. He began drinking, was overmedicated for stress, threatened his beloved wife with a gun, acted as though he could be blown up at any minute. The army did little or nothing to help him, or at any rate it wasn't enough. The whole story is gutwrenching. But the most gutwrenching part is to think of people like Travis and, indeed, his whole family and his young children are used by people like McCain to make up for their own war griefs and PTSD. Travis killed himself and his brother because he couldn't live with the person he had become after three tours of duty in Iraq. Its not that he thought he was a bad person, or that he was a bad person, its just that that person needed constant fear and adrenaline to function. He was broken inside and couldn't fit into an ordinary American life. When McCain talks about victory in Iraq and making each soldier's death "count" he is ignoring the fact that we aren't "counting" the cost at all. We are breaking men and women, every day, in that meat grinder. Win or lose they are broken. And that cost will never be paid for by McCain and his other war hounds, not in dollars nor in care nor even, as far as I can see, with an apology.