“The worst feeling,” Sergeant Tom Whorl scribbles in a small spiral notebook, surrounded by nameless enemies in a strange and hostile landscape, “is not knowing when your last step will be. That’s what takes a toll on your brain.” With those simple words, a courageous man fighting a war that many would just as soon forget about captures the gut-wrenching day-to-day, life-and-death struggles and triumphs of the men of Patrol Base Dakota. Their story happens to unfold at a Marine encampment in southern Afghanistan, but it could be the story of young American soldiers in any war, trying to do the job when doing the job might mean, at any second, losing your life—or watching your best friend lose his.
In The Living and the Dead, acclaimed journalist and Iraq War veteran Brian Mockenhaupt relates the grippingly true story of three close friends—Tom, Ian, and Jimmy—and the reality of how twenty-first-century combat plays out in the lives of those who fight it. How walking through the Afghan countryside means patrolling for cleverly hidden explosives that can instantly tear a man in half. How the families back home live in dread of the men in gray cars showing up at their front door with news too grim to imagine. And how the consequences of a split-second decision can replay over and over in a soldier’s mind and haunt him for the rest of his days.
Last year, Mike Sager described the everyday things that made life so difficult for one traumatized War on Terror veteran. "The smell of burning trash ... the smell of diesel fuel ... the loud report of a firearm in the hollow ... a rubber hose stretched across a street to count traffic ... a line of slow, stupid, complaining motherfuckers in the checkout line at the Walmart ... anything can set him off," Sager wrote. "The way people look at him. The way his family tried to treat him with kid gloves, like some cripple. The way he couldn't even bond with his own kids. It's like he's home but he's not. Like part of him was left behind."
A military therapist tried to assess whether Iraq War veteran Colby Buzzell had contracted a disorder in combat. "He reported that he drinks heavily every day as a way to avoid these traumatic memories, usually to the point of blacking out so he can eventually fall asleep. He has been using alcohol for the past three years as a way to numb intrusive thoughts and reminders of his combat trauma since his return from Iraq," the write-up from Buzzell's official evaluation stated. "He is severely isolated, spending most of his day in his room and sometimes going for several days to weeks without speaking to anyone. When asked whether he has thoughts of harming or killing himself Mr. Buzzell endorsed having a passive suicidal ideation....Mr. Buzzell also stated that he does not own a firearm because he is scared of what he might do with it when he is drunk...while he has gotten into a couple of fistfights in bars, he has never had an urge to hurt or kill someone."
Matthew Newton wondered if America is on the cusp of an epidemic. "Of the 1.6 million U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since October of 2001, approximately 40 percent are suffering from PTSD, clinical depression, or traumatic brain injury. And these statistics, when considered along with 2008's record-high suicide rate among troops, paint a troubling picture of the military's health," he wrote. "During the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. last May, Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, hinted at the potential magnitude of the problem: 'It's quite possible that the suicides and psychiatric mortality of this war could trump the combat deaths.'"
And Gail Sheehy reported on the theory that coddling army recruits makes them less resilient after traumatic experiences. “Sometimes you gotta package up your feelings and get on with the mission,” Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum told Sheehy. “Then you can let them out when it’s more convenient and deal with them. I let myself cry at memorials.”