The acceleration of the attacks on U.S. and NATO troops by the very ones they are charged to train are front-page news now. These attacks are becoming so "normal" that they even have a name: green-on-blue. There have been almost three times as many attacks this year as in 2011.
What must it feel like to be a soldier "inside the wire," supposedly secure, training the locals as police and soldiers so they can manage their own country as a democracy when international forces withdraw in 2014? To know that you can't trust those you are training, that as soon as a weapon carries a live round, it could be turned on you? If you've been there a while, you get it: you're an easy kill. If you don't get it, you're in even greater danger.
Many of these Americans in Afghanistan have served four, five or more tours. I've been getting phone calls from the combat zones since 2004. Here's how one soldier put it:
"It's like sleeping with a rattlesnake. You can't be sure where he is in the bed, but you know he's there, so you sleep lightly. You're always on guard for a strike."
Always on guard. I know the physiological stress that puts on the body, that hypervigilance. I can only imagine what it must do to the mind. Being put in harm's way for brief, intense periods is one thing. Having to know danger is always a heartbeat away is another.
Staff Sergeant Chad Reiber (U.S. Army Reserves) just completed his fourth tour, having served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He describes working alongside Afghan Army soldiers both inside and outside the wire, as a kind of on-the-job training. Asked whether he worried about security on his own base, he said,
"Not usually among the men I knew. But when we went out to other bases, I felt danger then. You never knew when it would happen, you just knew it was a very real possibility all the time. You expect that outside the wire. But danger inside the wire? That changes everything."
Wendell Guillermo, now a National Veterans Foundation staffer, served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army. He says hypervigilance becomes a habit that combat vets bring home:
"I can imagine that if I were there now, I'd want the security of a weapon. Coming home from my own combat experience, I know it's hard not to translate any presence into danger. An ordinary traffic stop can seem threatening. Even how you drive is different, scanning the roadsides, driving erratically at times. Crowds are disorienting. Back home, I felt like I was walking on eggshells, not IED's."
Is it any wonder that we have returning troops struggling with reintegration into civilian life, or troops who choose suicide? We need to acknowledge both the danger we are asking our troops to accept and the long-term effects of it. We're still dealing with trauma from Vietnam. Our returning warriors deserve to be met with compassion for what they have witnessed and experienced. As citizens, we might be limited in what we can do to affect change in the war zones, but that doesn't hold for what happens here at home. We need to be present for these vets, with our eyes and ears and hearts. And with a commitment to see that they get the healing they need.