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General News    H3'ed 11/25/19

Tomgram: Andrea Mazzarino, What My Personal War Costs Me

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The Costs of War at Home

I see firsthand trends affecting all military communities in the United States. Deployments during these wars have come more frequently and often last longer than in past American wars. The specter of death by suicide hangs over all our lives, because everyone in such communities knows someone who has died that way or has threatened to do so.

In 2012, for the first time in our history, American service members began to die by suicide at higher rates than civilians. Today, they are more likely to take their own lives than to perish in combat. As anthropologist Kenneth MacLeish points out, military suicides are most prevalent among those who have deployed to our war zones just once or not at all, or who left the military involuntarily with a "bad paper discharge" or other than honorable discharges of some kind. Moreover, mental illness is rampant among active-duty military service members. According to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2014 roughly one in four active-duty service members showed signs of mental illness, including mood and trauma disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety (though this figure is conservative, given that the study did not include the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries among combat vets. Many soldiers seek relief from the stresses of training and combat through alcohol and other drugs and, in our military community, it's common knowledge that seeking professional support for such problems can place you at risk of social stigma.

And don't forget military families either. Training and fighting both take a toll on us, too. What modest figures we have on the subject make the point. For example, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger point out in our book, among servicemembers who entered the military between 1999 and 2008, the more months spent deployed, the more likely they are to divorce, with the vast majority of such divorces occurring soon after returning from deployments.

Local reports of domestic violence in military communities suggest that the problems leading to such divorces are only growing, though documentation on the subject is unreliable. It wasn't until 2018 that, under pressure from Congress, the military made domestic violence a crime under its own legal code. Deployments of nine months or longer or frequent redeployments leave spouses at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, which, in turn, often affect the mental and physical health of their children as well.

Young children with deployed parents visit the doctor more frequently for behavioral health issues than those whose parents have not been deployed. Yet, as many spouses like me have discovered, community-based physicians are often unprepared to help in such situations, tending instead to blame the behavioral and mental-health issues of children on their parents or even on the children themselves, while not making referrals to services that could help (often, sadly, because there are none in the community).

"They Were as Hard Off as Me and I Was Killing Them"

Such collective problems are, of course, experienced individually and I've felt many of them in my own life. My spouse, for instance, departed for sea tours at moments when most of our family's ducks were anything but in a row, whether it was a matter of childcare, work schedules, my health needs, or our other family obligations. Our son, for instance, has trouble sleeping because he was sad and scared for his dad, given what he hears in passing about Syria, North Korea, and -- from other well-meaning military spouses and our own extended family -- his own father's attempts to "keep us safe" from unnamed others who might want to harm us.

I'm edgy and uneasy, knowing that my husband's commander, a combat vet, has been angry at our family because I refused at one point to volunteer to work with a spouses group. When our house gets broken into, mid-deployment, and I'm alone with our toddler and pregnant, I wonder briefly if payback could have been involved before I dismiss the thought.

After I have our second child, a woman from the base with no mental-health or social-work training calls me weekly to ask about my baby's health and safety. When I request that she stop, she refuses, telling me the same commander has ordered her to check in on each new mother in his command during deployment. I receive capitalized, hysterically punctuated emails from this woman warning all spouses not to jeopardize national security by talking to anyone about the submarine's movements or, for that matter, emailing anything to our partners that they might find "distressing," even details about a family member's illness. Repeatedly, I am reminded that the U.S. is fighting a war on terror and our individual problems should never get in the way of that.

Things aren't exactly a cakewalk between deployments either. It seems that, wherever I go, I find stigma, not support. For example, shortly after giving birth, I consulted a psychiatrist for help with post-partum depression. He was the only psychiatrist within 30 miles of our town who accepted military health insurance. Upon meeting me for the first time, he asked me to sign paperwork allowing him discretion to commit me to a psychiatric hospital "because military spouses often get psychotic during deployments." I decided to tough it out rather than see him again.

And I try to keep in mind that my problems don't add up to much, given the true costs of war out there. As a start, it's a stretch to draw comparisons of any sort between an educated, white millennial family here and those who directly pay war's costs like combat vets or, above all, civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other American war zones. As my co-editor Catherine Lutz and others have shown, though, combat and the home front are connected in unexpected ways.

If you spend 18 years fighting wars you grossly underestimated how to pay for, if you embark upon those wars without first considering alternatives like diplomacy, if you assume that social support for this country's wars and those fighting them will come from military families that are patriarchal ideals from the white 1950s, and if you imagine an enemy -- terrorism -- that could be anywhere at all any time at all, then you're already in a battle that's going to prove unwinnable and morally unnerving for everyone involved.

I obviously can't speak for how people from groups in this country more vulnerable than mine think about our never-ending wars and their costs, but my guess is that at least some of them feel connections to those in the war zones far more intimately than I do, no matter how hard I try. I will never forget a neighbor of ours, a Mexican-American Vietnam vet whom I would find smoking on our street when I completed my daily runs. One evening, when we were chatting, he told me that what haunted him most was how many of the rural, poor Vietnamese he'd shot at looked more like him than most of the American officers in his unit. "They were as hard off as me and I was killing them," he suddenly said, tears in his eyes. Among veterans, he's not alone in feeling an affinity for those on the other side.

On Bearing Witness

When Catherine Lutz, Neta Crawford, and I first founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University in 2011, we took a close look at the kinds of public assumptions we wanted to upend. As a start, we wanted to show that, contrary to the Bush administration's stated rationales for invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, Washington had not effectively protected human rights -- not to safety, liberty, or for that matter freedom of speech -- nor brought "democracy" with us into those distant lands. Instead, by then, those countries had already seen spikes in gender-based violence and the deterioration of the most basic protections that led to everything from the collapse of prenatal care to the killing of civilians to the kidnapping of journalists, aid workers, and academics.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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