Wounds linger for Iraq veterans

As US troops leave Iraqi cities, those who served in combat remember their ordeal.

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    Many US troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after tours in Iraq [GALLO/GETTY]

    Geoff Millard, a former US Army sergeant, spent a 13-month tour of duty in Iraq, but part of him never left.

    "You can't get over combat experience," Millard told me in an interview in the Washington DC home he shares with three other veterans.

    "You don't get over it, you don't move on, you learn to live with it."

    The base where he carried out military intelligence work was shelled relentlessly, targetted by enemy insurgents' mortar fire.

    "You can try and be as tough as you want, [but] the first time you get mortared in a combat zone, it's terrifying," Millard said.

    He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has been unable to hold down a job for more than a year.

    "You go from being terrified of these mortars to not caring less. But then when you come back here that desensitisation wears off. I have panic attacks, and sometimes I can't breathe … It's tough to have a job when so many things send you into a panic."

    Invisible wounds

    In depth


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     Inside Iraq

    Millard is now active in a veterans' anti-war group and struggles with his invisible wounds; he is concerned about depression and suicidal thoughts.

    "So many vets kill themselves because they're alone," Millard says.

    "They can't talk to their families, because their families don't look at them the same. They can't talk to the guys in their unit (who might consider them) not manly enough to deal with what they're going through. But that's not real; the PTSD is what's real."

    Approximately 1.5 million US troops have served in Iraq and many veterans suffer the after-effects of combat.

    Now though their combat role is changing as most US troops withdraw from Iraq's cities and towns as part of an agreement between the US and Iraqi governments.

    Despite a recent spike in violence, Barack Obama, the US president, insists Iraq has become peaceful enough to stick to the timetable for gradual withdrawal.

    All US-led combat operations are due to end by September 2010, with all US troops to leave the country by December 2011.

    "If you look at the overall trend, despite some of these high-profile bombings, Iraq's security situation has continued to dramatically improve," Obama said during a press conference in June.

    Hundreds killed

    Attacks in Baghdad surged as US forces prepared to withdraw from Iraqi cities [AFP]

    The bomb attacks he mentioned killed more than 200 Iraqis in just the past week, and analysts say it is nearly impossible to stop determined suicide bombers from hitting civilian targets.

    "The people perpetrating this have no interest in the future of Iraq," says Joseph Carafano, a conservative analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

    "They want Iraq to fail, so no-one can have any sympathy for these people who are essentially interested in the destruction of the country. The other thing is they are bloodless; they're willing to murder innocents for a political statement."

    Some Iraqis blame all the mayhem and violence on the US occupation; many want the US to leave at once, while others fear sectarian violence will re-erupt if the troops withdraw.

    Carafano believes the upsurge in violence is unavoidable, but temporary: "That violence was expected; nobody ever suggested that terrorist groups and insurgents didn't have the capacity to do a one-off bombing here or there, so you have to look at the overall trends in security," he says.

    "Are the trends going in the right direction? Are the Iraqis building capacity? Are they exercising the ability of governance over greater swaths of the country? And those trend lines are relatively positive; as horrible as these attacks are, when you compare it to the level of violence a few years ago, this is pretty mild stuff."

    Criticism

    Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation believes that if the death toll surges, the Obama administration will be open to criticism from political opponents.

    "Sure, Obama will be attacked by those on the right, some on the left, abandoning people, are we doing enough to help restore civil society? Are we neglecting responsibilities we set up for ourselves?"

    But Clemons says most Americans now are more than happy to allow the Iraqis to take on the burden of security for themselves: "The equilibrium inside Iraq is going to change as those US forces pull back," he says.

    "There's likely to be more violence, that's to be expected; but the sovereign government (of Iraq) wants [the withdrawl] to happen, and are calling for a national holiday to celebrate the removal of US forces from those cities.

    "So Obama … has the cover of the Iraqi government saying we want to take over these responsibilities on security."

    As the administration's focus shifts to the war in Afghanistan, pressure is mounting on the Iraqi government to fill the security vacuum.

    However for Geoff Millard, he is currently focused not on the pullback date of June 30, but on July 4 - US Independence Day.

    It is a holiday traditionally celebrated with fireworks, but the sound of exploding fireworks, being so similar to that of incoming mortar rounds, triggers Millard's panic attacks; he is planning on retreating deep into the countryside, far from the festivities.

    "When everybody else is celebrating our history," he says, "I'm terrified."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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