Abby Scher on the race to elect Maine's next Governor
March 2007 Issue
I was folding fliers for a high school workshop on nonviolence when my husband, a mortar platoon sergeant with the Army National Guard 81st Brigade, walked into my office and said, “I got the call.”
We hadn’t talked about the possibility of him being deployed for months, not since President Bush had declared, “Mission accomplished.” But I knew exactly what he meant; I didn’t know then what it would mean for us.
We weren’t prepared, and neither was the Guard. The Guard sent him into harm’s way without providing some of the basic equipment and materials, such as global positioning systems, night vision gear, and insect repellant, that he would rely on during his year-long tour of duty at LSA Anaconda, the most-attacked base in Iraq, as determined by the sheer number of incoming rockets and mortars, which averaged at least five per day.
Unlike active duty military, the National Guard had no functional family support system or services in place. While the Guard was scrambling to get it together, my husband was already gone, and I was alone, just months after we had moved to Seattle.
Twenty-four hours after Lorin boarded the plane for Iraq, I hung a blue star service flag—denoting an immediate family member in combat—in the front window. Then I closed the blinds, hoping to keep the harbingers of death at bay. They still got in, through the phone, the Internet, the newspaper, and the TV.
Each week, I heard of a friend’s husband or son: wounded, maimed, shot, hit, hurt, burned, amputated, decapitated, detonated, dead. A glossary of pain. I checked icasualties.org all the time, cursing and crying as the numbers rose relentlessly, praying that Lorin wouldn’t be next.
I got involved with Military Families Speak Out, which is exactly what the name suggests: an organization of people with loved ones in uniform who are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq. We were breaking the military’s traditional code of silence by publicly protesting this war, and the pushback was intense, particularly for military wives. I was ostracized by the women married to men in my husband’s company, and my husband was reprimanded by his superior officers. I was an “unruly spouse,” and Lorin could “expect adverse career consequences.”
I thought being forced to serve in a war based on lies was itself an “adverse consequence.” I said as much during an interview on Hardball with Chris Matthews, which just happened to be broadcast on the big-screen TV during lunchtime in the mess tent at Anaconda. Lorin didn’t see it, but approximately 5,000 of the troops he was serving with did. He heard about it for weeks, but never asked me to stop. He had his own questions and concerns about Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During the run-up to the war, when 76 percent of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, we protested in the streets of Spokane. But he was contractually bound and committed to his men. He clung to what he’d been briefed on regarding the Guard’s mission in Iraq, which included building schools for kids.
Two months into his deployment, I got a call from him, and he said, choking up, that there was an “accident.” Two Iraqi children were dead because he gave the order to fire a couple of mortar rounds. Several weeks later, he phoned again, his voice flat and emotionless, to tell me that the men he had dinner with the previous night had been killed by the same Iraqi soldiers that they were training six hours earlier.
Days went by without any communication—anxious hours, restless nights. I swerved between anger and fear.
His e-mails were sometimes delayed, or returned to him as undeliverable, with portions blacked out by military censors. The ones that got through asked for more homemade treats, baby wipes, batteries, movies, and magazines. One missive informed me about rockets landing next to the trailer where he slept . . . while he was in bed. Another ended abruptly because he was under attack.
Lorin spent hours loading coffins onto cargo jets; I spent days on red alert.
Finally, the phone rang with the news that my husband was coming home, after nearly a year in Iraq. They didn’t tell me he’d bring the war with him.
He’d been back for almost two months, but he was still checking to see where his weapon was every time he got in a vehicle. He drove aggressively, talked aggressively, and sometimes I could swear that he was breathing aggressively. This was not the man I married, this hard-eyed, hyper-vigilant stranger who spent his nights watching the dozens of DVDs that he got from soldiers he served with in Iraq. He couldn’t sleep, and missed the adrenaline surge of constant, imminent danger. The amateur videos of combat eased the ache of withdrawal from war, but did nothing to heal my soldier’s heart.
At a conference on post-deployment care and services for soldiers and their families, a Marine Corps chaplain asked, “How do you know if you’re an SOB? Your wife will tell you!”
Har-de-har-har-har. The remark got the predictable round of applause from the capacity crowd, which, with one exception, wasn’t living with anyone who had recently returned from Iraq. I was that exception, and it infuriated me that this was a joke. The Pentagon’s solution for the constant stress endured by those of us who felt bewildered and betrayed was: “Learn how to laugh.” With help from the Pentagon’s chief laughter instructor, families of National Guard members were learning to walk like a penguin, laugh like a lion, and blurt “ha, ha, hee, hee, and ho, ho.”
Emotional isolation is one of the hallmarks of post-combat mental health problems. The National Guard didn’t conduct follow-up mental health screening or evaluations of the men in my husband’s company until they had been home for almost eight months. Nearly a year later, in August of 2006, my husband was informed of his results: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was obvious that he was suffering, but when I brought it up, he parroted what the military told him: “Give it time.”
Time wasn’t a panacea for Jeffrey Lucey, Doug Barber, or the dozens of other Guard members and Reservists who have committed suicide after serving in Iraq. Time hasn’t helped the hundreds of homeless Iraq War veterans wandering lost in the streets of what military families are assured is a deeply grateful nation. Time is most definitely not on our side.
My husband has served his time with the Guard. He’s got more than twenty-three years of actual service, and almost twenty years of “good time” that qualifies him for retirement benefits.
But then he learned about a few loopholes. Now, if he serves as a member in good standing for 364 days in a year, instead of 365, that year isn’t credited as time served toward his retirement. If he’s deemed irreplaceable—he’s one of a handful of mortar platoon sergeants who’ve seen combat—the Guard can retain him for several more years after his contract expires.
He is surprised by this, but I’m not. I no longer expect that the Department of Defense will keep its promises to the soldiers or their families. I don’t pretend that the Pentagon will adhere to its policies. And I know from experience that “support the troops” is a slogan, and not a practice.
On January 11, 2007, the Pentagon discarded the time limit that prevented Guard members and Reservists from serving more than twenty-four total months on active duty for either the Iraq or Afghan wars. The Pentagon’s announcement came in the wake of President Bush’s decision to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.
The escalation contradicts the advice of top U.S. military officials. Although the majority of Americans are opposed to the “surge,” most members of Congress are reluctant to block the supplemental appropriations request that will fund it, claiming that they don’t want to abandon the troops. Congress has abandoned the troops for nearly four years.
It is the soldiers, their families, and the people of Iraq that pay the human costs. The tab so far: more than 3,000 dead U.S. troops, tens of thousands of wounded, over half a million Iraqi casualties, roughly 250,000 American servicemen and women struggling with PTSD, and almost 60,000 military marriages that have been broken by this war.
It was hard to reconnect after more than a year apart, and the open wound of untreated PTSD made it virtually impossible. Lorin is still the best evidence I have of God’s grace in this world, but we just couldn’t find our way back together after the war came home.
Stacy Bannerman is the author of “When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind.” She is a member of Military Families Speak Out, www.mfso.org, and can be contacted at her website, www.stacybannerman.com.