Depending on the war, post-traumatic stress can have many expressions,
but this war, because of its omnipresent suicide bombers and roadside
explosives, seems to have disproportionately rendered its soldiers
afraid of two things: driving and crowds. Movie theaters, subway cars,
densely packed spaces, all can pose problems for soldiers, because
marketplaces are frequent targets for explosions; so can any vehicle,
because IEDs are this war's lethal booby trap of choice. Booth manages
his driving anxieties by leaving his Long Island home every morning at
4:30 a.m., when there's no risk of traffic (especially under bridges,
which militants in Iraq are always blowing up), and avoiding the right
lane (in Afghanistan and Iraq, one generally drives in the middle of the
road to avoid setting off IEDs). Once he gets to the city, Booth parks
around the corner from his office and has managed to arrange his life so
that he never encounters more than a handful of people. The only real
logistical challenge is lunchtime, which he handles by ordering in,
picking up from a grill across the street, or skipping entirely. I ask
if he goes to restaurants in the off-hours. Not very much, he answers,
pointing to two sets of scars, one near his jugular and the other
stretching down his spinal column. I reach for a glass, and I can't
feel pressure, so I'll knock the glass over. it's hard not to feel
On September 6, 2006, as Booth was returning from a mission in Kirkuk,
his Humvee rolled over an IED. He spent three years in San Diego in a
Warrior Transition Unit, or WTU, where most badly injured soldiers go to
convalesce, and four surgeries later, though he'd broken his neck, he
was able to walk normally again. He no longer has any sensation in his
right hand, though, and he lives with back spasms, headaches, stiffness
in his neck, tingling and numbness in his right arm, and pain radiating
down his spine and right side. Once a week, he goes to
cognitive-behavioral therapy near his home, and he follows a carefully
scripted drug regimen: Valium for spasms, Lyrica for pain, Topamax for
headaches, and, on occasion, Klonopin for anxiety. And thats a lot
less than what I used to be on, he tells me. Percocet for pain. Ambien
for sleep, but they don't want you on it for a long time because it's
habit-forming. Flexeril for spasms, but that makes you drowsy.
Zoloft was only one of the antidepressants he took. I don't remember
them all, he says. In the WTU, people kept what they were taking to
themselves, unless they were talking to a friend. It's almost admitting.
Four seconds tick by. That your broken. And you don't
ever want to admit that. Because you're used to being able to do things.
And I was a medic. What I did was fix things.
Spend five minutes in Booth's company, and it's hard not to be moved by
the redrawn contours of his life. He's in pain and can't sleep (you
don't realize how much you lift your head when you sleep): he hasn't
set foot in a grocery store in well over three years and has gone to the
movies just once, at eleven in the morning, when the theater was
practically empty. But it's also hard not to marvel at his resilience.
He's laconic and uncomplaining; he's still golfing (he likes the
peaceful sensation of the green, likes that it's a physical activity he
can still do); he is comfortable talking about his struggles. When
confronted with the reality that he could no longer be a surgeon's
assistant his right hand won't permit it. Booth took several interview
and reseme-writing courses and found a job across the country, at a
security company, where he took charge of its human-resources
department, overseeing hundreds of employees. If the Army's Medical
Review Board no longer found him fit for duty, he wasn't going to
protest. You can't spend the rest of your life in the Army, just trying
to heal, he says. You're going to spend the rest of your life healing
one way or the other anyway.
I mention that he strikes me as the type of person people would be eager
to help heal, surely his new acquaintances in New York are trying to
cobble together a social life for him? A lot of people are trying, he
says. He laughs uneasily. It's hard. He says that he had a girlfriend
back in San Diego. The relationship didn't last. It's a lot to ask of somebody.
I ask if being in New York is any better, since New Yorkers tend to be
more open about their psychological pain than most people, discussing
their drug dosages at dinner parties.
He gives me a pained, strained look that makes me realize how
foolish how cavalier and beside the point this question is. Yeah, he
finally says. But it's getting into the dinner party that's hard.
That's not going to happen. I was very outgoing before. Now I keep to
Even at the lowest point of the Global War on Terror in April 2004, say,
when the number of casualties was spinning out of control and it looked
like there was no end in sight, morale among our troops ran fairly high.
Yet today, with casualties tapering and a slightly improved prognosis
for stability, our troops, by every conceivable external measure, are
falling apart. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars make up a
disproportionate number of the jobless; the Army's divorce rate, which
used to be lower than the civilian population, has surpassed it and is
higher still among those who've deployed. A spokesman at Fort Drum, home
to the 10th Mountain Division here in New York State, tells me by e-mail
that one-quarter of its 20,000 soldiers have recieved some type of
behavioral health evaluation and/or treatment during the past year. Defense Department spending on Ambien, a popular sleep aid, and
Seroquel, an antipsychotic, has doubled since 2007, according to the
Army Times, while spending on Topamax, an anti-convulsant medication
often used for migraines, quadrupled; amphetamine prescriptions have
doubled, too, according to the Army's own data. Meanwhile, a study by
the Rand Corporation has found that 20 percent of the soldiers who've
deployed in this war report symptoms of post-traumatic stress and major
depression.The number climbs to almost 30 percent if the soldiers have
deployed more than twice.
I feel like people with my symptoms are becoming the majority of the
Army, says a major from the New York area who recently started taking
Effector, an antidepressant, and a variety of sleep meds after a second
tour in Iraq. Felling anxious when you don't have a reason to, being a
little depressed, having low-grade andonhina, not sleeping well this is
the new normal for those of us who've been repeatedly deployed.
The Army's own research confirms that drug and alcohol abuse,
disciplinary infractions, and criminal activity are increasing among
active-duty service members. Most ominously, a growing number of
soldiers can't handle the strains of war at all. Until three years ago,
the suicide rate of the Army, the branch with by far the most men and
women in this war, was actually lower than the American populations,
testament to the hardiness of our troops, given that young men with
weapons are, at least as a statistical matter, disproportionately prone
to suicide. But in 2008, the Army suicide rate surpassed that of the
civilian populations, and the Marines surpassed it shortly thereafter.
So grim is the problem that this summer, the Army released a remarkably
candid suicide report. If we include accidental death, which frequently
is the result of high-risk behavior (e.g. drinking and driving drug
overdose), it concluded, we find that less young men and women die in
combat than die by their own actions. Simply stated, we are often more
dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.
In other words, nearly as many soldiers are dying at home today as are
For most of the past decade, the Army has downplayed the collateral
damage this war has had on our soldiers' nerves. Until The Nation
brought the practice to light last spring, the Army sometimes assigned
the label of personality disorder to those suffering from
post-traumatic stress, often rendering them ineligible for disability;
Warrior Transition Units have continually earned harsh scrutiny, most
recently from the Army's inspector general himself. Under the direction
of Peter W. Chiarelli, the four-star general and vice-chief of staff,
the Army has at least made an effort to lend some transparency to its
troubles and to address them more aggressively. The problem is that the
Army woke up to its mental-health crisis quite late, and the more
closely Chiarelli looks into the issue, the more confounding it seems to
be to solve.
For starter, the United States has never had an all-volunteer corps of
soldiers who've spent a whole decade in battle. Men and women who, by
turns, have repeatedly subjected themselves to the horrors of war and
the trials of reintegration back home. Don't ever underestimate what
three, four, five deployments does to you, Chiarelli tells me this
November, as we fly down to Fort Stewart, Georgia, whose 3rd Infantry
Division was just returning from Iraq. It's uncharted territory, as far
as I'm concerned. Even without repeated deployments, the life cycle of
a soldier is a model of brutal compression and therefore, almost
certain to cause distress. At 24 years of age, says a striking
footnote on page one of the Army's suicide report, a soldier, on
average, has moved from home, family, and friends and resided in two
other states; has traveled the world (deployed); been promoted four
times: bought a car and wrecked it; married and had children; has had
relationship and financial problems; seen death; is responsible for
dozens of soldiers; maintains millions of dollars' worth of equipment;
and gets paid less than $40,000 a year. Now consider what happens when
this cycle repeats itself for a decade. Moving, divorce, death,
financial turmoil, says Lily Burana, author of the memoir I Love a Man
in Uniform. Those are the top stressors in a life. And this is what you
get every freaking year in the Army.
I didn't want to be one of those soldiers who wound up shaking a baby.
It took a long time for the Army to concede that repeated deployments
may be lurking behind its escalating suicide rate. Initially, it seemed
to argue that the newest generation of soldiers was less psychologically
stable. (From 2004 to 2009, the suicide report noted, the Army waivered
in a large batch of kids with drug and other criminal records in order
to meet its recruitment targets.) But now, based on a more granular
analysis conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and a team
of researchers from Columbia, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and
the Uniformed Services University, Chiarelli believes that it's not the
marginal characters in the Army who are committing suicide in greater
numbers. It's the old hands. I'll tell you point blank, he says, though I've avoided this conclusion for two years: Where we're really
seeing the increase in suicide is in the population that would never
have contemplated suicide but because of successive deployments, or a
single deployment, or an event in a deployment, they go into this danger
The nature of this conflict is also quite unusual. As in Vietnam, the
enemy blends in with civilians, rendering everyone a potential threat;
but unlike in Vietnam, this war is fought in cities as much as in the
hinterlands, which means soldiers are never allowed to mentally
decompress. There's no front in this war, and no rear either, which
means there's no place to go where the mortar rounds aren't I was up
at Walter Reed the other day. Chiarelli tells me on the airplane, and
I ran into a young kid who lost both his legs, wayyyyyy up. I asked him, How did it happen? You know what he said? He pauses, looks at me
intently. He's big and barrel-chested, with crow's feet so pronounced
they look like they've been stamped into his temples with a fork. He said, Sir I was standing in line at the PX to get shaving cream, and a
120-millimeter mortar came in and took off both my legs.
And on top of this unremitting combat anxiety, our soldiers have to cope
with unremitting domestic anxiety of a sort that previous generations
never knew, because these soldiers are Skype-ing with their families
several times a week, even from the mountains of Afghanistan. At first,
the Army believed this constant contact might help mitigate loneliness.
Now, Chiarelli frankly acknowledges, he's not so sure, because
technology just drags you back home, where your 22-year-old wife is
having trouble finding a job and has a couple of kids she's taking care
of on her own. Many soldiers are also addicted to Facebook, whose
tagging function is proving a mixed blessing. Soldiers are seeing
pictures of their loved ones in bars, pictures of their loved ones in
outrageous behaviors with sexual overtones, says Colonel Kathy Platoni,
a clinical psychologist in the Army Reserve who's been deployed four
times. Everything there hanging on to is demolished. What's
sustaining them is torn away.
Even with an intact marriage, the challenge of repeated reintegration
into the home front can be dislocating. Soldiers come home to find their
sons doing chores they once did, their wives with independent lives,
their professional duties in flux. It's no accident that 80 percent of
all Army suicides in 2009 happened Stateside, after the euphoria of
homecoming had worn off. It's why the Army now requires follow-up visits
to a behavioral-health specialist six months after soldiers return.
Complicating matters, nearly half of today's Army comes from the
National Guard and Reserve, whose soldiers return from each tour not to
an Army base but to small towns or big cities, where their jobs are
hardly assured and their peers are far less likely to identify with
their experiences. They go back to a community that says, Oh, you were
in Iraq. Did you kill anybody? says Thomas H. Bornemann, director of
the Carter Center Mental Health Program, who treated soldiers at Fort
McPherson during the Vietnam War. There dealing with voyeurs wanting
to know intimate things, things their going to find hard to talk to
their wives about. Nor do they necessarily see doctors who know
anything about combat medicine. The Guard and Reserve, that's the
population I'm really scared of, Chiarelli says. I've got 45 more
suicides in the National Guard this year than last year.Forty-five.
And in fact, the Army would later release data saying the number of
suicides from the National Guard and Reserve nearly doubled between 2009
Feelings of idleness and inutility aren't unique to the home front, of
course. They can also descend on a soldier while he or she is still in
theater. Platoni notes that she spent the last quarter of her most
recent tour on a quiet installation in northern Afghanistan, where the
soldiers saw little combat. She suspects that's precisely why she saw so
much of them. Monotomy, boredom, a lack of value and meaning and
purpose to your mission these are factors, she says. Especially that
loss of a sense of purpose: What am I doing here? I'm not suffering like
my buddies in the south. There's a tremendous feeling of guilt.
It's an agonizing paradox, but one that many mental-health professionals
now entertain: Our troops may be in such horrible distress right now
because the operational tempo of this war has slowed down, and they're fighting doing less.
Chiarelli is sitting in the chow hall at Fort Stewart, having lunch with
eleven soldiers who've just returned from Iraq. When I was growing up
in the Army, he tellsthem, if anyone wanted to see a psychiatrist or
psychologist, they would have to go to the fifth floor. So nobody wanted to
go in the elevator and press five. Everyone smiles nervously. It's not
every day that a four-star general joins you for burgers. So now we
have behavioral-health people in the primary-care clinics, Chiarelli
continues. You don't have to go to the fifth floor. But I know the
stima's still there, believe me. How about screening? Psychological
evaluations are supposed to be mandatory. He's checking to see if
they've happened. Have you had any screening since you've been back?
He looks around the table. The soldier nearest him replies yes, he had
one, but it was perfunctory. Chiarelli purses his lips. Anyone else?
The table's silent for a few moments. Then a 26-year-old staff sergeant
named Douglas Johnson, who just spent twelve months as a chaplain's
assistant in Mosul, speaks up. I had some issues prior to deployment
he says. I had aggression, I had no patience with people. When I got
back, they did another screening just to check on me. And it was pretty
This answer seems to relieve Chiarelli.Are you in a good place?
he asks. Yes sir.
Yes, Paxil an antidepressant.
Is it helping?
Yes sir, I can always tell the days I forget to take it.
The group laughs. Then Chiarelli asks a more loaded question: Anyone
ever hear of those who are overmedicated?
The group is silent again.
During Vietnam, soldiers famously used a combination of dope and Jimi
Hendrix to chill out and psych up. Today's soldiers essentially listen
to both Prozac and Metallica to achieve the same balance. Drugs are very
much part of the program DOD--approved, the exact opposite of
countercultural. Johnson, in fact, got his Paxil in a clinic in Mosul,
three months before his tour was scheduled to end. I was having some
severe temper issues, he told me, and I had a brand-new baby waiting
for me at home. I didn't want to be one of those soldiers who wound up
shaking a baby. If he ever went on a mission and forgot his Paxil, he
adds, he'd just ask his friend, who took it too: It was pretty likely
that someone was, if not on the same dose, then on something pretty
Walk into any of the larger battallion aide stations in Iraq or
Afghanistan today, and you'll find Prozac, Paxill, and Zoloft to fight
depression, as well as Wellbutrin, Celexa, and Effexor. You'll see
Valium to relax muscles (but also for sleep and combat stress) as well
as Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, and Xanax. There's Adderall and Ritalin
for ADD and Haldol and Risperdal to treat psychosis; there's Seroquel,
at subtherapeutic doses, for sleep, along with Ambien and Lunesta.
Sleep, of course, is a huge issue in any war. But in this one, there are
enough Red Bulls and Rip Its in the chow halls to light up the city of
Kabul, and soldiers often line their pockets with them before missions,
creating a cycle where they use caffeine to power up and sleep meds to
Because of the value the Army places on mission focus, however, doctors
in theater are generally reluctant to prescribe anything that could
seriously compromise it. Rather, it's when soldiers return home that
prescription-drug use and abuse spikes sharply upward: Depression and
boredom set in, suppressed pain surfaces with a vengeance,
hypervigilance morphs into insomnia, and meds are very easy to access,
because they're the most expedient way to treat pain and distress.
Roughly one in seven soldiers at Fort Hood were on antidepressants or
antipsychotics alone at some point last year, according to USA Today and
those were just the soldiers the Army knew about, the ones who wern't
discreetly seeking treatment off-post in downtown Killeen. (Nor did that
number include sleep meds, amphetamines, or painkillers.) More
troubling, nearly one-third of all active-duty Army suicides in 2009
involved prescription drugs, according to the report released this
summer. Some of the case histories Chiarelli sees are eerily reminiscent
of the toxicology reports one reads after a celebrity suicide. (From a
2009 Salon story about the suicide of Timothy Ryan Alderman: 0.5mg. of
Klonopin for anxiety three times a day; 800 mg. of Neurotin, an
anti-seizure medication, three times a day; 100 mg. of Ultram, a
narcotic-like pain reliever, three times a day; 20 mg. of Geodon for
bipolar disorder at noon and then another 80 mg. at night; 0.1 mg. of
Clonidine, a blood-pressure medication also used for withdrawal
symptoms, three times a day; 60 mg. of Remeron, for depression, once a
day; and 10 mg. of Prozac twice a day.)
We are very anti-medication, Chiarelli is told at one of our final
stops in Georgia, by a neurologist at Eisenhower Army Medical Center at
I hear this everywhere I go, the general replies. We are
anti-medication, we're anti-medication. But why do I get these sheets
of paper profiles of suicides with twelve medications listed on thyem?
He mentions that he's had two- and three-star generals confide in him
that they were addicted to pain medication in the aftermath of their
service, and that it took their wives to point it out to them. Are you
guys different? asks Chiarelli Is this place a soda straw that no one
else passes through?
In fact, this residential facility that Chiarelli is visiting is
different. It treats alcohol and substance abuse, PTSD, traumatic brain
injuries, depression, and pain management all under one roof. Stephen N.
Xenakis, a psychiatrist and former commander at Eisenhower, was an early
proponent of this kind of integrated program. Like many doctors, he
believes that one of American medicines greatest failings is its
fragmentation into narrow-caliber silos, with doctors seeing ailments
solely in the context of their own specialties. No population, says
Xenakis, suffers more outrageously from this structural deficiency than
returning soldiers. Doctors seldom take the totality of their
extraordinary experiences into account. Soldiers are in an environment
that has dust particles and toxins we don't even recognize, Xenakis
tells me. There are pressure waves and blasts. They're carrying packs,
at altitude, that weigh 90 pounds. They're in a different sleep cycle
than normal. They're in situations that are almost always stressful, if
not traumatic. Yet when they return home, he says,they're hunted into
all those individual silos, with each specialist seeing only what he or
she is trained to see: A headache. Insomnia. Paranoia and irritability.
A ruined knee. So as doctors, Xenakas continues, we say okay we're
going to track this psychological problem, and we're going to track this
immunological problem, and we're going to track their headaches and
their musculoskeletal pain and their insomnia, he slowly breathes
out. Though he retired in 1998 Xenakas has been urging the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs to consider integrated medicine for quite some time. When in fact it's a system problem we're dealing with, he says. And
that's how you get this poly-drug problem.
Chiarelli's not unsympathetic to this kind of logic. He's a systems guy. If the general were a doctor, he'd be a surgeon, says Richard W.
Thomas, the assistant surgeon general who frequently accompanies
Chiarelli on his trips. He'd be hot lights, cold steel. The trouble is
that mental-health questions don't lend themselves to precise, technical
fixes cost-engineered to reflect limited resources. In theater, the Army
relies on a highly subjective psychological questionnaire that most of
the experienced officers can ace, knowing just which boxes to check in
order to avoid further observation by mental-health professionals. The
Army is so short on mental-health personnel that Chiarelli is pushing
telebehavioral therapy, whereby soldiers disembark from their tours
abroad and debrief with psychotherapists via satellite. It's not a very
orthodox form of treatment, he knows, but his response to
traditionalists is: as opposed to what? While few people are trying
harder to make the Army a less psychologically destructive place than he
is, Chiarelli has little patience for the kinds of open-ended, searching
questions that are posed by doctors like Xenakis. Psychiatrists they're
the worst, he blurts out at one point while we're at Eisenhower, as his
meeting with doctors there draws to a close. I once had a meeting with
a bunch of psychiatrists and psychologists where I had to kick every
single one out of the room. Everybody had an opinion.
Potholes lately. Those have been a big deal. I caught up with David
Booth two weeks ago at his office, this time he is wearing a TENS
Unit, or transcutaneous electrical nerve-stimulation device, in order to
blunt some of his pain; the cold weather's made his body even tenser
Potholes? I ask. I got blown up and my vehicle rolled, he explains. It's the shake of the vehicle.
Booth continues to lead a cloistered life. He still arrives at the
office before the sun's up, still stays in at midday, still hasn't gone
to the movies, still gets his groceries delivered, still isn't seeing
anyone. (Someone said to me the other day that I'm unapprocable:
he says, and I was like yeah I can see that) But he was recently
promoted to director of operations, and his workplace, a gleaming
mini-NORAD that could double as a set for CSI, is filled with former
policemen and servicemen. My personal life isn't one, and I'm
not happy with it, he says. But my professional life is a different
life. I'm busy, I'm working, I'm providing a service.
I look around the room. He's brought me into a training space, filled
with model suitcase bombs and other types of explosives. I mention the
irony in a soldier recovering from an IED injury spending his time
surrounded by fake explosives. He shrugs, if the point is that I'm
trying to get back to where I was before I was injured...
So this normalizes things, I say. Provides continuity. He nods. He
remains identified with those in Afghanistan and Iraq. I would have
gone back again and again and again, if I could have.
For all of his difficulties, David Booth is a success story, adapting as
well as is humanly possible to circumstances that most civilians would
find unimaginable. He hasn't vanished from sight, or pretended he's
fine, or numbed himself with whatever substances he has at his disposal.
He hasn't totaled his car or crashed his motorcycle; he isn't hitting
his kids or screaming at his wife. Yet even those who have the
wherewithal to seek help can lose heart. Healing can be a glacial
process. I sometimes make excuses not to go to therapy, admits Booth,
because it's like opening wounds, you know?
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