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Finding a Way Home

Thousands of American men and women sent to fight in Iraq saw all the horrors of a brutal guerrilla war. Now they’re beginning to return home. How have they been changed by what they experienced?

Former Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey tells his story in an unbroken rush. A red Kia failed to stop at a checkpoint near Baghdad. Massey's platoon followed orders and fired at the car. When the car rolled to a stop, they pulled three dying men from the car. A fourth man was miraculously unscathed. As the three men bled to death next to the road, the fourth sobbed and screamed again and again at Massey, “Why did you kill my brother?”

Massey and his platoon found no weapons in the car, nor did they find any in the other cars they shot at checkpoints early in the war. He believes they killed more than 30 civilians, many of them women and children. After 12 years in the Marines as an infantry instructor and recruiter, he is now home in the U.S., discharged and diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And he's speaking out about what he saw in Iraq and what it did to him.

There are many soldiers like Massey. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq had signs of PTSD. That compares to only 6 percent in the first Gulf War.

The reaction of soldiers to the horrors of war has been called many things—shell shock, battle fatigue, and now the medicalized term PTSD—but Rachel MacNair, who researched the experience of returning Vietnam veterans, says there is a gaping hole in discussions of war trauma. MacNair, author of Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: the Psychological Consequences of Killing, compared rates of PTSD among Vietnam veterans, and she found that soldiers who were in low-intensity battles but had killed someone suffered higher rates of PTSD than soldiers who experienced high-intensity battles but did not kill anyone. As traumatic as it is to witness a buddy lose his life or to see a civilian killed, it is more traumatic to kill someone yourself, she says.

Charles Sheehan-Miles, a veteran of the first Gulf War, recalls the aftermath of that war, in which a member of his unit died and he himself killed people. “I went through tremendous self-doubt and remorse, through several tough years, and some heavy drinking,” he says.

Sheehan-Miles co-founded the Gulf War Resource Center and later Veterans for Common Sense, which he now runs, and he describes his activism as part of his own healing. “It never goes away completely, but it feels to me that I'm working in some way to balance the scales.”

Stan Goff, a former Special Forces officer agrees. “My experience is that organizations like Veterans for Peace and now Iraq Vets Against the War are at least as therapeutic as any formal psychiatric protocol,” he wrote in an email. Goff, who served in Vietnam and other conflicts, is a member of the coordinating committee of Bring Them Home Now, an organization of military families, veterans, and soldiers that opposes the Iraq war. “Fighting back against the system has a tendency to de-fragment one's personality,” he says.

Bert Sacks, a peace activist who has traveled repeatedly to Iraq, believes honesty is the key to healing from the Iraq war for both the soldiers and the U.S. as a whole. “There are truths that are hard to confront, and when we push them away we are at odds with the way things are,” he said. “To heal is to live in the truth.”

Massey, who is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was formed in July, echoes Sacks: “Truth is healing. Every time I speak about it, it's healing.” But he also says, “I shed a couple tears each time I talk about the details,” and it's clear he's understating. After a long flood of talk, he abruptly says goodbye and hangs up the phone.

Massey and other Iraq veterans emphasize how important the support of Vietnam veterans has been to them. Wes Hamilton, a Vietnam veteran and member of Veterans for Peace, says that contrary to stories of peace activists spitting on veterans, when he returned from Vietnam he found peace activists supportive, but veterans from previous wars were hostile. He was once thrown out of an American Legion hall. Now he and other Vietnam vets are determined to give Iraq veterans the help they need.

Veterans groups and peace organizations have created the GI Rights Hotline, to provide advice to soldiers and veterans about discharges, complaints, and civil rights. Gerri Haynes, a nurse and Middle East chair of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, is organizing support groups for returning soldiers. Haynes, who has facilitated support programs for paramedics and mothers grieving the death of children, plans to start the groups in Washington state, where she lives, but hopes to spread the program nationally.

MacNair says her research, although it is focused on extreme trauma, offers a heartening lesson. “Despite all the killing we've done, the human mind is not designed to kill,” she says. “Portions of us get sick when we kill. Killing is against our nature.”

See www.veteransforcommonsense.org for lists of resources for returning soldiers, including how to get counseling for PTSD and help for reservists who have lost jobs due to being called up. The GI Rights Hotline is 800/394-9544. Information on Iraq Veterans Against the War can be found at www.ivaw.net. Email Signup
Healing & Resistance
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