|US veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq often experience effects of war long after their return [GALLO/GETTY]
Less than a month after the September 11 airplane attacks that collapsed the World Trade Centre, the US began its military intervention in Afghanistan.
Less than two years later, in March of 2003, the US military expanded its Middle East mission, invading Iraq.
Governments in both countries were toppled, and a decade after the attacks that were used as a motivating point to start the wars, US troops remain in both countries.
Throughout the past decade, 6,026 US troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many more have been physically wounded, and even more return home with psychological trauma that can become devastating.
Three war veterans who served in the post-9/11 US wars shared their stories with Al Jazeera.
In their own words, they describe the impact of their experiences at war and the personal effects of re-integrating into society,
|Andrew Wright, 28. US Marine corporal, 1st Marine division
Deployed Feb 2002 - Oct 2003: Japan, Thailand, Kuwait, Iraq
I went to boot camp in July of 2000 and got to my unit in December of 2000, so I had been in my unit for nine or 10 months when 9/11 happened.
I think at that point I was probably looking forward to the possibility of going to war. I had joined the Marine Corps and I had joined the infantry, and that's what I had trained to do.
But in the build-up to the Iraq war, I thought it was a terrible idea, and it didn't actually make any sense to me, and I considered not going.
What was a deciding factor for me was that we were definitely, severely, undermanned and I looked around and realised – I’m one of the more competent people here.
Looking back on that now, I see that I thought I had a choice between doing the wrong thing and going, but possibly saving the lives of these people that I cared about, or doing the right thing and not going, and possibly further endangering the lives of these people that I care about.
That was definitely not an easy or simple decision.
After I had been in Kuwait for about a month before the actual invasion, I remember that I didn’t feel the young guys were taking things as seriously as they needed to be taking them.
I pulled all my junior marines together, I circled them up and said: "Look, you’re not taking this s--t seriously.
You’re going to repeat after me: I will die in the country of Iraq.” And I just made them say it out loud.
That was definitely one of the memories that sticks out for me – watching grown men cry at having to say they’re going to die and not wanting to say it, not wanting to admit it to themselves, and just making them face that reality, that that’s what they were going to go do – that if they thought otherwise, they weren’t treating it with the respect that it deserved.
It’s easy for me to look back and say ‘oh, they were 18-year-old kids’, and I forget that I was a 20 year old kid at the time. What the f--k did I know?
Often you hear about people needing to dehumanise and hate the enemy to go fight them. I definitely didn’t see it that way or need to see it that way when I was over there. I have no hatred towards you, I have nothing but respect for you, but I’m here doing my job, you’re here doing your job, and I hope do mine better.
Then I came back to the real world… which is problematic in itself right? That I get to come back to what I call the ‘real world’, but that [Iraq] was the real world for a lot of people.
I had been in a kill-or-be-killed situation, and that obviously has huge effects on how you go about your daily life.
I remember being extremely uncomfortable in crowds, always hyper vigilant, always looking around, always checking things, treating things that we wouldn’t normally treat as life or death as life-or-death situations.
I didn’t get it at the time, but looking back on it I understand now that what’s at work in my head is that the mistake could’ve killed someone. Somebody could’ve died because I had knocked an apple off the counter – which is ludicrous, but that’s the way I was operating for quite a while.
I considered myself patriotic when I went to war. I certainly did when I joined the military.
Do I still believe in the ideals that people who claim to be patriotic claim to believe in? Liberty and justice? Yeah, sure. But I think that those probably mean very different things to me than they do to somebody who feels that it’s very important to claim that you’re patriotic.
The word has been used to suit people’s purposes, because ultimately the idea behind patriotism is doing what’s best for the country, and doing what’s best for the country is also doing the right thing, and the right thing is opposition to these occupations, and the right thing is to bring the troops home, and the right thing is to take care of them.
So I got involved with Operation Recovery.
Operation recovery is a campaign that was launched by Iraq Veterans Against the War last year on October 7th, on the anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion, and it’s a campaign to defend service members’ right to heal and to stop the deployment of traumatised troops.
There are folks that are being prescribed and required to take psychotropic drugs who are being sent into a combat zone. Part of the reason for that is that medical personnel don’t make medical decisions in the military – commanders do.
You’ve got a situation where there’s quite possibly a captain with an English literature degree who’s looking at the numbers and says: "Well, I need to have X number of troops to deploy and I need to deploy to move my career up”, so they’re going to override medical decision.
Ultimately, the military wouldn’t be able to support these occupations if it wasn’t drugging up service members and sending them back in and redeploying traumatised troops.
|Eddie Falcon, 28. US Airforce loadmaster for C-130 airplanes. Deployed 2001 - 2005: Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Lousiana (Hurricane Katrina)
I got deployed for the first time around March 2003, and I consistently got deployed and came back – going for four months and coming back for two months – for the next two years.
I joined in to get money for college and to get out of the poor economic situation that I was in – from a working class family. We were living in East LA around gangs and stuff, so I wanted to leave.
When I went in I don’t think I really understood how the war operated, and I just assumed that we were doing what was just and was good and that it was actually something good for humanity.
Then I noticed how security just kept tightening because of the double war [in Iraq and Afghanistan] going on. People in the Middle East started really not liking America because of us declaring war on Arab countries.
I remember being in Afghanistan for my first deployment. We were stationed in Kyrgyzstan, and we were allowed to leave the base as long as we came back by midnight or something.
What happened when I came back the next year [was that] we weren’t allowed to leave the base at all. I felt like we were just making things bad for ourselves.
Another memory that really sticks out was doing detainee movements – moving Prisoners of War.
[We were] moving detainees from the population in Baghdad to the prison in Basra and moving people around like cattle on the plane… they were blindfolded. The military police were being rough with them: pointing tasers in their eyes, in their faces.
I asked what was going on in terms of who these people were. I wanted to know who I was carrying, and they told me that they had just been picked up – most of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was honourably discharged in 2005.
It’s been hard integrating with people. You feel isolated when you come back because you’ve got all this stuff on your mind and you can’t really talk to nobody about it because nobody understands.
I pushed aside what I was dealing with by doing drugs – to forget about it.
I ended up contaminating my liver from drinking too much alcohol, and that was around the time I was doing a lot of alcohol and cocaine. I slowed down on that, but then I started picking up on pain pills and I got hooked on Oxycodone for a couple years, and I just recently quit that and I’ve been off for months.
I’m going to the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] for right now. They’re pretty helpful. They have a PTSD and drug abuse program.
You only get five years of free healthcare when you first get out of combat. Now I’ve got to pay. I’ve got co-payments and I’ve got medical bills stacking up.
Sometimes we just want to do something with our lives, to be a part of something bigger – to want to make change, and people in the world that we live in today misconstrue that with the military or the police or other types of authority.
When you join they say that you’re supposed to protect the country from any enemy foreign or domestic, and I still think about that today. I do want to be part of something bigger, and I do like the land that I live in and where I’m from, and I like the people around me, and I want to protect them.
In that sense, I guess I’m a patriot of the people.
|Jorge Gonzalez, 31. US Army vehicle commander/gunner
Deployed June 2006 - Sept 2007: Mosul, Baghdad and Baqubah - Iraq
When you come home [from deployment] you’re very excited, and they give you four or five days off. The four or five days off was very strange because when I was in Iraq my wife moved into a new house. I had a new bed to sleep in. It’s exciting but it’s strange.
After a week or two it just starts to wear off – the excitement. I guess, being bored, I really wanted to go back to Iraq. I felt useless when I was back at home and then people started telling me they started seeing a change in me.
I saw a doctor and got diagnosed with PTSD and saw another doctor who said because of the things I experienced in Iraq I also had traumatic brain injuries – because I got blown up three different times in my vehicle from IEDs – Improvised Explosive Devices.
My first effects with PTSD were the norm. I hated being in big crowds. I had nightmares when I got home. I couldn’t sleep throughout the night. I don’t think I had flashbacks, but I have just random memories of seeing some things, remembering some things, and I felt very angry at myself.
I felt very angry at the people around me. My kids and my wife – I couldn’t stand being around them. They didn’t experience the same things I did and they couldn’t, I guess, be on my level of what I experienced.
I thought I could take care of it myself without being on medication, so I started drinking a lot. And then I decided to take the medication. Then I started overtaking the medication on purpose because it would help me. And [I would take it] while I was drinking, so it really didn’t help.
After a while I got put on suicide watch because I expressed interest in killing myself. The medical personnel put me on something else, and then that wasn’t working, so my unit – my first sergeant, my captain, my platoon sergeant – moved me into the barracks and they had me on suicide watch for a couple weeks.
Everybody comes back somehow affected, and it’s just how you decide to show it and how you decide to express it, and whether you’re willing or not to tell somebody "there’s something wrong with me”, or "I’m feeling kind weird or funny about what I experienced”. I’d say 90 per cent of the people I come into contact with [have PTSD]. For the extra 10 per cent, they probably have a better way covering it up.
How I deal with it now: I stay busy. I stay busy in trying to help other soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and I stay busy with other people’s problems so I don’t have to deal with my own. But at the same time I see helping others as helping myself.
[In 2004] I was basically on my way out of the army. My wife told me that there’s this coffee shop she knew that has free coffee, free wifi: "Go hang out there, because you’ve got nothing else to do during the day. It’s called Coffee Strong." I went there and got the free coffee and used the free internet.
In the back of my mind I was still a Republican, a Bush supporter. I would hear the volunteers and the staff there at the time, and they would talk about what they believed about the war and their politics.
I used to call them very leftist radical hippies, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re very unpatriotic. Slowly, some of the things they started saying really stuck to me.
I got involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War [IVAW]. I signed up on the website. The local chapter actually met at Coffee Strong. It was the perfect Coffee Strong-slash-Iraq Veterans Against the War meet-up place, and since then I haven’t left.
I’m now the executive director of Coffee Strong, a veteran owned and operated GI coffee house located right outside Joint Base Lewis-McChord that provides services and resources and links to soldiers and veterans and family members for various things like post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, veteran benefits.
Most of my friends approve of what I’m doing. When they got home they went through the same things. They disagree with the wars now.
I wish we could’ve all gone together at the time and stood up against what we saw was wrong, but at the time we didn’t know it was wrong and we thought we were doing good to our country and to our military.