ALBUQUERQUE– Searching to describe his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, Joseph Callan paused, his gaze momentarily distant.
“I see dead people,” he said, scoffing.
“In crowds, I’ll think, ‘that’s Howzer!’ or somebody else,” the former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant explained. “I know they’re dead. I saw them dead. But I feel compelled to confirm it’s not them, to see them from another angle. So I’m ducking through a crowd to get another look at them and it’s always just some random (person).”
Callan, now 32, joined the Marines when he was 18 years old, he told The Independent.
Surrounded by college students at an Albuquerque coffee shop near UNM, the great-grandson of a Navajo code talker and regional organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) ticked off the other manifestations of his three combat tours in Iraq.
“Self-medication, alcohol mostly,” he said. “Short temper — angry all the time. And not caring. Just not caring. This detachment. That’s why school didn’t work out for me, I think. I just didn’t care. …And I’m reckless. I ride my motorcycle faster than I should.”
“I never stop thinking about Iraq,” Callen said. “It’s a constant presence. It’s always there.”
Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, troops with combat-related traumatic brain injuries, called TBIs, or PTSD symptoms have routinely faced multiple deployments, Callan said.
“After the initial invasion, just about everybody I knew exhibited signs of PTSD – and we were all redeployed,” he recalled. “The Army and Marine Corps just needed warm bodies to stuff into slots. I’ve seen guys deploy with arms in casts. I saw (a Marine) deploy on crutches.”
Now, as a field organizer for IVAW, Callan wants to see an end to the practice of deploying troops with combat trauma. The organization’s “Operation Recovery” is a push to force the Pentagon to obey its own directive against deploying troops with PTSD, Callan said.
“These troops have a right to heal,” he said. “It’s inhumane and an awful practice to take somebody who is damaged and put them back in the environment that damaged them. They’re human beings. They break like regular humans.”
Some Marines who sought help were told they had to choose between “remaining deployable” and a “less than honorable discharge,” Callan said.
Callan is taking his message on the road, speaking throughout Washington, Oregon and California this and next week.
Multiple combat tours for brain-injured vets widespread, Army doc says
Multiple deployments for brain-injured and traumatized troops have been a common problem throughout the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Remington Nevin, a U.S. Army physician and epidemiologist.
Nevin spoke with The Independent in a series of interviews early this year — before being ordered to stop speaking with the news media. Nevin has studied deployment rates for soldiers with mental health diagnoses.
Military medical experts warned the Pentagon the planned 2007 “surge” in Iraq would re-expose so many already-traumatized active duty troops to new brain injuries and trauma that it would likely “break the Army,” Nevin said.
“Those soldiers are broken now,” Nevin said. “Repeated brain injuries or repeated exposure to traumatic events for a soldier with PTSD makes those problems much harder to treat. … The point of military public health is to avoid harm. For many of these guys, it’s too late now.”
Many military doctors strongly suspect repeated combat trauma is behind record-high suicide rates among soldiers, Nevin and an Army Medicine source, who asked not to be identified, both told The Independent early this year.
Officially, the Army denies that. An internal study confirming that combat unit deployments were a significant risk factor for suicide was declared a “political hot potato” by a high-ranking official and sent back for re-analysis. After unspecified statistical adjustments, the correlation between suicide and combat duty disappeared, according to an April 2010 Army suicide report.
A public Army report blames risky behavior and substance abuse for the soldier suicide epidemic — but those are signs of PTSD, Callan was quick to point out.
The Pentagon knew of the redeployment problem as early as 2004, records show, and officials fretted that brain injuries from roadside bombs would become the “Gulf War Syndrome” of the Iraq war. It took more than three years to add blast trauma questions to soldiers’ post-deployment health assessments.
At least 74,000 troops’ post-deployment health assessments have gone missing, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
‘We shot anything that moved’
During Callan’s second deployment to Iraq, in 2004, his vehicles were hit by roadside bombs three times, and he was within the “impact area” of another four.
“My platoon was hit 25 times,” he said. “That was just in the second deployment. Platoons like mine were called ‘suicide squads’ because we drove un-up-armored LAVs. … We literally shot anything that moved.”
Callan saw Iraqi civilians accidentally killed by U.S. forces, he acknowledged.
“If you smoke a guy kicking in your back door at night, you’re not going to have PTSD,” Callan told The Independent. “But if you shoot somebody and it turns out to be a guy checking your water meter, you’re probably going to be fucked up.”
After his second tour, Callan’s PTSD symptoms were worse – but he still was not diagnosed with PTSD, which would have disqualified him for another combat tour.
Instead, a military doctor diagnosed him with “chronic stress,” Callan told The Independent. Callan was told to take Benadryl to help with insomnia, but frequently turned to alcohol instead.
Callan was finally diagnosed with PTSD by the Veterans Administration (VA), only after he had left the Marine Corps.
Once diagnosed, Callan found it a challenge to get help.
He called the state veterans hotline for help, but nobody answered or called him back, he said. The VA in Albuquerque offered medication and counseling classes, but those classes are only offered during business hours, he said — making it difficult to keep a regular job. (VA officials could not be reached for comment Thursday because VA offices were closed for Veterans’ Day.)
PTSD is not just a ‘military problem’
Between 350,000 and 900,000 troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD, according to IVAW. And an estimated 12 percent of deployed troops are taking prescription psychiatric medications.
“It’s dangerous for other soldiers,” Callan said. “It’s not safe for troops who depend on those kids. … They’re not 100 percent alert. What are you supposed to do?”
Veterans are often marginalized and ignored, and many people don’t appreciate how war trauma diffuses throughout the communities to which they return.
“There are veterans everywhere,” Callan said. “The pain and the violence spreads throughout our communities, across the country. That’s what people don’t get. Even if it’s 20 years until they retire, eventually we all move out and return home to our communities. And we’re bringing home that violence and PTSD with us.”
Politicians wouldn’t meet with IVAW volunteers earlier this month to discuss deployments of traumatized vets, Callan said.
Instead, the group is attempting to build a movement within the military against the practice, he said.
That won’t be easy, Callan acknowledged.
“Peace activists are just below bin Laden in the military, in terms of who the enemy is,” Callan said. “It’s already illegal to redeploy PTSD-diagnosed troops but they do it all the (explicative) time. A directive already exists saying those troops cannot be deployed (again).”BadSnake711 ]
Bryant Furlow writes for Colorado Independent sister site The New Mexico Independent.