Bush's Shame: From "Biscuit" Teams to PTSD

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

In the "War on Terror," one of the most sophisticated practices of applied psychology to emerge inside the U.S. military came in the form of "Behavioral Science Consultation Teams," which the soldiers call "Biscuit" Teams. Each team includes psychologists and psychiatrists as well as physicians who are skilled in the "science" of interrogating prisoners. Wherever "Biscuit Teams" plied their craft, whether in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, or Bagram, widespread reports of torture followed.

It was these professionals who understood that persons from Arab cultures generally look upon mean dogs as sources of anxiety, and proceeded to use snarling attack dogs against naked prisoners as interrogation aids. They also used intravenous fluids, suppositories, and "techniques" that forced prisoners to defecate and urinate on themselves chained to the floor of their cells.

The "Biscuit" Teams were also knowledgeable about certain Muslim religious taboos. They forced some detainees to stand naked in front of female interrogators, and used females to straddle the men, and even smear fake "menstrual" blood on some of them. They bombarded them with loud music for days at a time and kept them under fluorescent lights. Other practices included: "harsh heat or cold; withholding food; hooding for days at a time; naked isolation in cold, dark cells for more than thirty days; and . . . 'stress positions' designed to subject detainees to rising levels of pain." The U.S. military command seemed to place great faith in applying advanced psychological techniques when torturing prisoners.

But when it comes to applying the same level of psychological sophistication to treating our young men and women who are returning home from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), the U.S. military falls far short. The Department of Defense (DOD) has referred only about one in five troops for mental health care who screen at risk for PTSD. Troops who seek care are often ostracized, accused of trying to get out, malingering and weakness.

Iraq's urban guerrilla warfare has had a terrible toll on the psychological well being of thousands of American service men and women. The symptoms of PTSD often appear months and even years after exposure to traumatic "stressors." There is little follow up screening six months or a year after deployment. The DOD's mental health services, which are crucial to help soldiers make the transition to civilian life, are in as bad shape as the hospital barracks at Walter Reed.

Many of the returning troops have served more than one tour in Iraq, and they have children and spouses who depend on them. About half of the approximately 140,000 troops are enduring their second tour of duty; another 25 percent are on their third or even fourth tour. Many have had their service lengthened through "stop loss."

Over 35 percent of the veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom who have sought Veterans Administration healthcare have been diagnosed with mental disorders. The military has been returning troops to combat who have been diagnosed with PTSD, and repeated exposure to trauma worsens the symptoms. An alarming number of Iraq veterans are receiving less-than-honorable discharges for engaging in behavioral symptoms that appear to be PTSD as well as traumatic brain injury. They are shoved aside by claims that their PTSD is a "pre-existing" condition.

More often than not, it is family members who recognize the need and provide primary support for troops to recover from PTSD. Many of the younger soldiers entered the service as teenagers when they left their homes for the first time, which makes their transition back to civilian life all the more difficult; and many individuals were exposed to childhood risks, unstable households, and marginal family status before they joined the service. These personal factors, along with the multiple tours and extended deployments destroy families.

In Iraq, our troops face extremely hostile conditions; they are in constant 360-degree danger of drawing fire, coming under mortar attack, or falling prey to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Their relentless exposure to urban guerrilla combat, car bombs, sectarian killings, and suicide attacks has made the current war perhaps the most psychologically taxing of any conflict in our nation's history.

Over 1.1 million American troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the physical and psychological injuries they have suffered, the number of severe PTSD cases will easily run into the hundreds of thousands. The social costs of George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq cannot be summed up by the $500 or $600 billion price tag so far. We are going to be paying the costs of this war for decades after Bush becomes just a shameful footnote in the ashbin of history. It would be nice if the Bush Administration would apply as much psychological know-how to helping our service people adapt to civilian life than it has done with its "Biscuit" Teams in torturing prisoners.