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The War at Home (Part II)

What lingering effects of the Iraq war are faced by soldiers returning home from the front lines?

February 6, 2007

What lingering effects of the Iraq war are faced by soldiers returning home from the front lines?

This kind of behavior is common practice among soldiers," says Dr. Alan Baroody, Director of the Fraser Center in Hinesville. "They keep their thoughts to themselves."

The Fraser Center offers therapy for soldiers and their families. According to a Pentagon study, 35% of them need help once their family members return from deployment.

"Very often, the soldiers behave aggressively, lose their temper easily, have forgotten how to deal with children and cannot stand noise anymore." Their instincts are trained to keep anything at bay that might bring harm — and they continue to follow this pattern at home.

Some of the soldiers drop out of family life and resort to the computer to play war video games. They cannot quit the world they have been in fpr the past 12 months. And they believe that the only people who understand what they are going through are the ones who have been through the same experiences.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February 2006, 17% of soldiers and Marines who returned from Iraq screened positive for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) general anxiety or depression — a prevalence nearly as twice that observed among soldiers surveyed before the deployment.

The adjustment to civilian life is made particularly difficult by the unique strains that insurgency warfare puts on soldiers. "This type of war — insurgency warfare — where you don’t know whether you’re going to be the next victim of a car bomb or roadside bomb or (rocket-propelled grenade)… it’s like fighting in Vietnam when I was in the Mekong Delta," says Anthony Principi, a former U.S Secretary of Veterans Affairs. "You don't know whether you're getting into an ambush with guerrillas."

At the same time, the wives of the servicemen suffer. "There is only a brief honeymoon period," says Baroody, describing the time after the families have been reunited again. "All at once, the wives have to surrender all their autonomy they have assumed over the past year once again to their husbands," adds Ronald Blaine Everson of the Fraser Center.

The returning soldiers are well aware of this, says Baroody. "Most of them are not so much afraid of dying in combat, but of coming home with a changed personality."

In this respect, modern means of communication are both a blessing and a curse. It can be a blessing because Internet, email and text messaging can help to maintain a tighter bond between the soldiers in Iraq and their families at home.

But it can also be a curse since this bonding can add more stress to the troops in the field. "If a wife sends her husband text messages about financial problems at home, then often the soldier feels completely helpless," says Everson. Such distractions can be particularly dangerous in situations where he has to do one thing above all: stay focused in order to sruvive.

Everyone who drives along Highway 196 from Savannah to Hinesville can get an idea of who benefits from all the bitterness of a soldier’s life. Law firms offer instant divorces for little money, dozens of car dealers take aim at the soldier's hard-earned pay and high-interest lenders offer instant money.

About 147 churches provide their services for the broken-hearted and depressed — in a community that harbours roughly 30,000 people with a median age of 26.

Every time the 3rd Infantry Division deploys to Iraq, Hinesville turns into a ghost town — with the only people remaining being wives, children, elders and a basic crew that runs Fort Stewart.

The fast food chains shaping the townscape of Hinesville — Krystal, Ruby Tuesday, Checker, Subway or Wedgy — remain empty or shut down completely.

"One could sit at home and cry," says one citizen of Hinesville describing the mood on the days after the troops are gone. "The war puts a heavy burden on everyone," says Reverend Will Carter of St. Philips Episcopal Church in Hinesville. The burden is heavy on those who are leaving — but may be even heavier on those who remain.

One of them who could but did not leave Hinesville is Kevin Benderman — although for him the town must be a steady reminder of a track in life gone wrong. About a year after serving his first tour in Iraq in 2003 and before he was due for a second tour in January 2005, he applied for conscientious objector status.

"It's not right what we are doing there," says the 42-year-old Benderman explaining his decision. Then he adds, "The military leadership is corrupt."

He then tries to illustrate why and how the U.S. military in Iraq is overburdened with the kind of guerrilla warfare faced by the troops.

Is that reason enough to run away from duty? Maybe Kevin Benderman was only afraid of not surviving another deployment, afraid of coming back wrapped in a black plastic body bag.

When Benderman opted out of the military, he might not have acted like a professional soldier who, after all, had enlisted voluntarily. Maybe he only behaved like a human being ridden with angst.

Regardless, the price he paid was severe: For his refusal to return to Iraq, Benderman was sentenced by court-martial to 15 months in prison at Fort Louis in Washington State. He was demoted and is currently fighting to retain financial benefits he earned during his service in the army.

Unintentionally, he has become an icon of the anti-war movement. But deep in his heart, he has nothing against the military itself. He only disapproves of war — especially this war.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part I of this essay here.