We've come a long way, as a nation, toward a more sophisticated understanding of war...and politics, and, even, as our worth as 'ordinary' individuals in our capitalist/neo-liberal system. In the last eight years We, the people, have chewed on the meanings of patriotism, "necessary war", TARP, and terrorism. We've also added a concept to our national consciousness that was all but missing eight years ago: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When Major Nidal Hasan pulled the trigger so many times in Ft. Hood on November 5, 2009 there was national outrage, shock, and horror. A picture slowly formed around the man who could do such a thing. He was Muslim; he reportedly followed a radical imam; he is Palestinian; he couldn't find a pure-enough woman to marry; he was a coward who didn't want to deploy to combat. Moreover, he was a military psychiatrist for god's sake: how could he do this?
As Hasan recovers from multiple gunshot wounds his lawyer, retired Colonel John Galligan says, "Everything seems to be on the fast track in this case." Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, is being held at a Texas military hospital, and could face the death penalty.
I'm no psychologist or psychiatrist, but I was a GI Rights counselor for three years when my son was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. My son and I differ on our views: he loves the military and I love him. It is complex. So is a factor that is not receiving much publicity about Hasan: his Palestinian heritage.
Let me be clear: I am not defending or condemning Hasan; like most of us, I don't know enough about him. But, as we think of him in terms of one human being expressing symptoms of PTSD let us also expand our own consciousness about stress and human beings in general. This man lived and breathed war...and he comes from a background of war trauma. There is no question to anyone who has traveled in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza that Palestinians are under enormous physical and psychological stress. Who'd know more about this stress than a Palestinian psychiatrist? If Hasan's day-to-day military work listening to war traumatized troops was a primary stressor, a secondary stressor is almost certainly that Hasan lives with the knowledge of recent Palestinian history -- at least since 1948 and including the bombardment of Gaza in January 2009.
As a GI Rights counselor I talked regularly with troops all around the US, in Germany, even in Japan. For months, after beginning this volunteer work, I suffered a mild form of psychological trauma made manifestly worse because my son was in combat. Here are a few stories.
AWOL soldier, "Tom",(1) fought to get in to the military" then he fought to get out. Tom grew up in a troubled family and spent several years in foster care. At thirty years old, living with a wife and child in a community that offers few economic opportunities, Tom wanted to "do the right thing": serve his country, be part of something bigger than himself, work towards the American dream for his wife and children -- at least provide them with health insurance. It took a year to persuade his Army recruiter that the two misdemeanor charges against him when he was 18 years old are ancient history and that he's had no more trouble with the law since.
Basic training was tough but nothing in comparison with what awaited Tom at Ft. Hood, Texas, his permanent duty station. He befriended "John" who was similarly older than most of the other volunteers. Together in 1st Cavalry Alpha Company, 3/8 Cav. Greywolf Division, Tom and John's troubles began immediately when they refused to take the petty gibing meted out by much younger non-commissioned officers (NCOs). John went AWOL within three weeks and Tom has not seen him since. Tom remained on base and complained about his treatment. He was told to suck it up"or else.
"Or else" included:
* Threatening messages left on his home answering machine.
Tom: "One Sunday when I got home after church I played my phone messages. My wife and son heard Sgt. S. threatening me and they were very upset. Next day I replayed the message to battalion Chaplain P. who was so concerned that he called the Army's Equal Employment Opportunity representative. Chaplain P. was a good guy I'd met before when he addressed a roomful of men and asked that we see him before doing anything rash like committing suicide. After the meeting with EEO, Chaplain P. called 1st Sgt. C. who smoothed things over. Then 1st Sgt. C. called me into his office and belittled me for "telling on them." Then he told me to "get the hell out of his office." I also approached Chaplain K. for help but he wouldn't even talk to me."
* A beating by eight soldiers one of whom, Specialist O. told Tom, "You're now in the biggest gang in the world."
Tom: "I was in a local restaurant and, when they came for me, I ran through the parking lot with them after me. Then I stopped, put my hands up in the air over my head, and got down on my knees. When they reached me Specialist O. hit me with his fist in my sides and back about 7 or 8 times. First Sgt. C. watched and directed the attackers to pound my torso and limbs -- where bruises wouldn't be noticed -- and to avoid marking my face. When he yelled, "Stop. He's had enough," they returned me to barracks. There they forced me stand in the same place for four hours in front of everyone -- as if I was some kind of trophy. First Sgt. C. said if I moved he would let them take me down hard again."
* Five days in a psychiatric ward on Darnall Army Community Hospital and a diagnosis of cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder with mood swings.
Tom: "Sure, I was moody. I was so frustrated and angry all the time that my wife threatened a divorce. I couldn't believe what I was going through and I was scared of myself and of what I might do. Here I was, a volunteer, trying to work within a system that I thought was the best in the world and that offered me the best opportunities. Yet, I was treated like an unruly kid. I felt like I'd stumbled into a communist labor camp in some crazy dictatorship. And it wasn't just me: other soldiers were getting similar treatment. I attempted to talk to the Inspector General but Command Sergeant Major N. blocked my access into the IG's room.
* A regime of Depakote (usually prescribed for seizures although Tom's regime was prescribed for "mood stabilization") that he took for four days.