Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Wounded Platoon

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Another Sunday afternoon, another video about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week I watched The Wounded Platoon, a PBS Frontline documentary about a group of soldiers from Ft. Carson, Colorado, and all of the tragedy that befell them after each of the platoon's two long tours in Iraq.  This film focused on the mental health aspects of the deployments, with strong emphasis on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), two very real and very devastating results of combat in the current war theatres.

Ft. Carson is located near Colorado Springs, Colorado, a community long known for its piousness and sanctimony.  Colorado Springs is the home to several Christian fundamentalist organizations such at Focus on the Family and the United States Air Force Academy.  It was also the home of the mega-church founded by disgraced minister Ted Haggard.

But, there is an even seamier side to Colorado Springs as became readily apparent in this film.  Being near a large military installation, especially one like Ft. Carson that plays an active role in the wars, Colorado Springs has a fair amount of sleazy bars and gun shops.  Soldiers returning from the hell that is Iraq were drawn to both - a combination that proved to be as deadly and dangerous as the environment that they had left behind in Iraq.  

Soldiers interviewed in this documentary talked openly about the appeal of alcohol and drugs as they returned home, substances which helped to dull the emotional baggage that they had yet to unpack and address.  One soldier in talking about the guns, said that he feared being injured or killed by some American gangster (gang member) after successfully surviving Iraq.  He bought a gun so that he would be able to fight back.  Another said that the gun shops were literally emptied out by returning soldiers.

This film was an indictment of the military's seemingly callous disregard of the mental health problems of veterans.  Young men who were identified with mental problems, often after running afoul of the authorities, weren't provided with the services they needed by the military, and instead were apt to be booted out of the service with "less-than-honorable" discharges so that they were not even eligible to receive medical benefits from the Veteran's Administration after being discharged from the service.

The Wounded Platoon talked about the importance of numbers when it came to running the war.  Some young people were given significant waivers by the military to allow them to join - to keep the numbers up.  One young man, for instance, had a juvenile record because he had shot and killed a friend when he was twelve.  Another was spirited off to combat even though he was facing domestic violence criminal charges for pulling a gun on his wife.  One person in the film noted that some of the criminals ushered into the military were actually good fighters.  The problem was, of course, that they were being lauded for their social deficits instead of being treated for them, and those deficits were still a part of those soldiers when they returned the civilian world, deficits that had often been enhanced by the experiences of battle.

The mental health services that these young people received in Iraq and back in Colorado was never sufficient, nor was treatment adequately monitored or followed-up.  One treatment that became popular in Iraq was the use of psychotropic medications, something that had not been previously employed in war time due to availability issues.  Commanders became impressed with this mode of treatment when they learned that it kept that PTSD symptoms in check to the point that their soldiers could continue to fight.  Unfortunately, medications like anti-depressants have side effects, not all of which are beneficial to human beings who are in combat situations.  There were also problems in getting refills to soldiers on a timely basis, causing the usage to become sporadic - a less-than-desirable way to take anti-depressants, to put it mildly.

I didn't jot down the numbers, but several murders and incidents manslaughter were committed by soldiers from Ft. Carson after returning from the war zone, and a couple of dozen eventually committed suicide.

One of the saddest characters in this very sad tale was Army Specialist Jose Barco.  Barco, a young hero who was badly burned in an IED explosion, managed to extricate himself from under his burning vehicle and pull some of his platoon buddies free from the wreckage as well.  He came back to Colorado with many of the same demons that accompanied his friends, and, like them, he was given inadequate treatment with sketchy follow-up.  Barco had been honorably discharged from the Army with a seventy percent disability (a medical retirement), but that still did not keep his demons in check.

Jose Barco was at a party one night, drinking and armed, when he became angry and fired his .357 Magnum pistol into the ceiling.  After being asked to leave, he drove around a few minutes and then came back by the house where he unloaded his pistol into the front wall of the structure.  His drive-by shooting resulted in a couple of injuries, including a pregnant woman who was wounded in the leg.   A very angry and self-righteous judge lectured Barco at the sentencing phase of his trial and told him he was a disgrace to his uniform.  The judge then sentenced the damaged soldier to fifty-two years in prison.

(Please "google" Jose Barco and read his story.  This young man needs all of the support he can muster.)

The Wounded Platoon is a vivid recounting of a nightmare.  Unfortunately, it is a nightmare that is rapidly spreading across the entire country.  No communities in America are immune from the lingering horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan, nor should they be.  We broke these young people, and now we own them.

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