Traumatic Stress

07/13/2006 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a Captain in the Army's 1st Armored Division, I witnessed first hand the battle stress and mental fatigue our soldiers face during their deployment into Iraq. Now I read the weekly reports emerging from Iraq focusing on the growing atrocities being committed by the soldiers who were originally sent to liberate Iraq. While investigations are still pending in these cases and it is too early to comment on the guilt or innocence of these individuals, we must look at what is causing our brave young soldiers to act in such a horrific manner.

For more than 14 months my platoon and I patrolled streets, raided weapons caches, conducted checkpoints, organized the new growing government, and performed numerous other tasks we were asked to accomplish. We also focused on the humanitarian efforts of working in orphanages, rebuilding schools, or cleaning up the streets. Our soldiers witnessed the transition from an Iraq that celebrated our efforts as liberators to one that began to resist our occupation.

Repeatedly soldiers faced the fog of war where Iraqis who befriended you during the day were trying to kill you at night. On numerous occasions we would find Iraq Civil Defense Corps Soldiers whom we trained during the day guarding weapons caches our patrols raided at night. Many were found still wearing the uniforms that we supplied. Incidents like these compounded the frustration and anger soldiers feel toward the ever growing quagmire. It is impossible to explain the anguish one feels when they sacrifice so much over a year of their lives, only to leave a situation worse than when they arrived.

Unfortunately, because so few Americans are sharing the burden of this War, our soldiers return to Iraq for numerous tours. In less than eight months, the War in Iraq will become the third longest war in American history, while less than one percent of Americans have served their nation in this time of need. As a result, soldiers are returning for second, third, and even fourth deployments.

It is a sad fact that the military spends more time caring for equipment than caring for our soldiers. Before and after each mission, soldiers perform inspections of all their equipment from personal weapons to fighter jets. Yet, the military is not inspecting the soldiers themselves after the traumatic damage experienced by many during these deployments. Instead, most are brought home, retrained, and sent back for another round.

Department of Veterans Affairs Hospitals and Clinics have treated more than 168,000 returning veterans and over one third face serious mental distress. Unfortunately, active duty soldiers fear the stigma attached to a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis which can be used to end one's career, so many cases go unreported. No one is inspecting their mental health before they return to combat, and now we are seeing the results.

If we hope to stop these horrifying incidents from occurring we must address the larger issues such as; inspecting the American men and women serving their country as thoroughly as our military equipment, repeated deployments of individuals, and the growing health care needs of the veterans. Accountability must not be limited to the individual soldiers being accused of these crimes and legislation must be passed to protect our soldiers from returning to a war zone with mental health issues. There must be a thorough review of the policies of repeat deployments and the lack of prompt and comprehensive screenings for our returning soldiers

Currently legislation is in the works that will require the military to gain the approval of a credentialed mental health professional before a service member diagnosed as having a duty-limiting mental condition could be redeployed back to a war zone. More is needed! Soldiers must be allowed confidential face to face mental health exams when they return from deployment and our leaders must address the core issues behind the causes of the reported atrocities. By doing this and more we will truly be supporting the troops and ensuring they receive the needed care they have earned.

One of the tragic consequences of stretching our military too thin is that men and women who are suffering from mental health disorders are not only being asked to serve, but often asked to serve multiple deployments. Our nation must stop ignoring the very real question of military readiness as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw on.

Yes, the growing number of reports of our soldiers harming civilians in Iraq should deeply disturb every American, but we must be sure to we are actually looking at the core issues behind this problem. Our men and women in uniform are under traumatic stress that is compounding with each passing day in the war zone. Addressing those core issues will allow our leaders to begin resolving this moral dilemma facing our military and our nation.