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Atrocities Abroad, Violence at Home
What will be done to prevent a swell of domestic violence when tens of thousands of soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan?
by Bill Berkowitz
June 14, 2004

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As thousands of soldiers start streaming home from Iraq -- after participating in what President Bush has called "the first war of the twenty-first century" -- families and communities are bearing the burden of their wounds of war. At Fort Carson, Colorado, where some 12,000 soldiers have already returned from Iraq, interviews with soldiers, their families and a psychologist working with them revealed "a wave of serious mental health problems," United Press International's Mark Benjamin recently reported. "The pattern I'm seeing is that they are not being evaluated very thoroughly," Kaye Baron, a clinical psychologist in Colorado Springs who helps the Department of Veterans Affairs "evaluate the mental health of soldiers leaving the Army," told Benjamin.

Over the past two years, several returning soldiers have turned their guns on their families and themselves. In mid-March of this year, Army Special Forces soldier Bill Howell, home just three weeks from the frontlines of Iraq, beat his wife, and then pulled out a .357-caliber revolver, "put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger," and committed suicide, UPI reported.

A month later, a recently returned soldier at Fort Lewis, Washington, "turned himself in... saying he had committed a homicide," according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Pierce County sheriff's department later found the soldier's 28-year-old wife dead "apparently from homicidal violence."

During a six-week period in the late spring and early summer of 2002, four soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were accused of murdering their wives. Three of the four soldiers had recently returned from Afghanistan. Two of the accused men committed suicide at the time, while the other two were charged with murder. In late March 2003, Master Sgt. William Wright, charged with the first-degree murder of his wife Jennifer, hanged himself.

In Iraq, America's soldiers fought a quick war -- seizing Baghdad within weeks -- but have faced lengthy tours of duty as occupying forces. Soldiers that might well have died in previous wars have been kept alive because of better equipment and intensive battlefield medicine. Thousands are returning home with serious wounds to face long and intense physical rehabilitation as well as the need for long-term psychological counseling. Dr. Gene Bolles, who served for two years as the chief of neurosurgery services at Landsthul Regional Medical Center in Germany recently told a Boulder, Colorado audience that thousands of GIs have been admitted to Landsthul for psychiatric care.

Will the military be prepared to satisfy the huge demand for mental health services needed by these soldiers?

Under ordinary conditions, soldiers have a hard time leaving war behind. Post-traumatic stress disorder, the broad diagnosis "used to describe the most crippling effects of trauma," amongst soldiers returning from a combat zone, gained currency after the Vietnam War, Sara Corbett wrote in The New York Times Magazine in February 2004. Now, while it is used "to describe a range of symptoms including anxiety, sleeplessness and depression," the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder tends to only be invoked "when the symptoms become 'intrusive,'" when it "start[s] to really mess up a soldier's or veteran's life."

While the suicide at Fort Carson, the murder at Fort Lewis and the murders/suicides at Fort Bragg are relatively isolated events, there is a significantly higher prevalence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian population. According to Dept. of Defense figures, the rate of reported domestic violence incidents in the military was 18.6 to 25.6 per 1,000 military personnel between 1990 and 1996, then decreased to 16.5 per 1,000 in 2001. But the military's latest numbers are deceptive, Kate Summers, director of services at the Miles Foundation, told me in a telephone interview. "The numbers were lower in 2001 because the Dept. of Defense changed their methods of counting incidents, and revised the severity levels of incidents. They are only counting spouse abuse, not intimate partner violence involving fiancées, boyfriend/girlfriend situations, or former spouses."

In a November 2001 memorandum on "Domestic Violence," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that in fiscal year 2000, "more than 10,500 physical and/or sexual assaults of a spouse were substantiated in the DoD Family Assistance Program." Regardless of how the numbers are calculated, they remain much higher than the civilian population, which has 3.1 incidents of domestic violence per 1,000 people.

What is the military doing to prevent a further swell of domestic violence when tens of thousands of soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan?

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 required the DoD "to establish" a Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, whose purpose "is to improve the military's responsiveness and effectiveness in addressing matters relating to domestic violence," according to the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence Web site.

In October 2002, the US Congress approved an amendment to the final version of the Defense Appropriations Bill that provided $5 million -- cut back from the original $10 million proposed -- to fund victim advocates within the military services. "Victim advocates in the military helps those affected by abuse navigate the system," said Summers. "None of the money was earmarked toward prevention."

Currently Congress is considering an authorization bill with a provision requiring the Dept. of Defense to address sexual violence in the military. There is no specific funding figure attached to it; the DoD is supposed to report back to Congress in March 2005.

Soldiers and their families are receiving some assistance, but all too often they are not receiving timely or adequate domestic violence prevention or counseling services. Although support groups have been established at various posts, many soldiers are hesitant to attend them, fearing the stigma attached to their participation. "For every broken body" in attendance, Sara Corbett writes, "there are hundreds more confined to hospital beds across the country and hundreds more again who, by choice or by circumstance, are gutting out the effects of their injuries without the help of peers or mental health counseling."

The burgeoning demand for services at the Miles Foundation underscores the military's failure to adequately address domestic violence. Since its founding in 1996, this Connecticut-based private, non-profit organization has offered comprehensive services "to victims and survivors of interpersonal violence associated with the military community." These services include: "providing assistance, support, advocacy and networking to criminal justice professionals and human service providers"; "furnishing professional education and training to military personnel and civilian community-based professionals and service providers"; "conducting research and analysis"; "serving as a resource center for policymakers, advocates, journalists, students, researchers, and scholars"; "conducting community education campaigns"; and "serving to ensure that public policy is well-informed and constructive."

In the course of doing its work, however, the organization itself has come under fire. It has been termed an "inconvenience," and the staff called "unpatriotic" and "traitors" by some in senior military leadership as well as by some service members themselves. Summers told me that the organization has a bulletin board full of nasty messages.

But that hasn't deterred the Foundation from continuing to ensure that information about these issues is placed directly in the public square. "Our intention is to insure that anyone who is willing to step up there and sign a contract to put their life on the line receives the care, services and justices available to all Americans. And," she added, "that all those who are associated with the military receive their rights, remedies, and restitutions."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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