Two months ago, John Russell a 44-year-old Army Sgt. with the 54th Engineering Battalion, who was on his third Iraqi deployment, and suffering severe PTSD, shot and killed 5 people at Camp Liberty, the Combat Stress Center in Baghdad, Three were servicemen sitting in the waiting area, one a social worker, and the other a psychiatric colleague, Dr. Matthew Houseal. Dr. Houseal was 54-years-old, the father of 7, and an Army reservist who left his job at the Texas Panhandle Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, to volunteer in Iraq, because he felt the need was so great.
This shooting wasn’t the first such at Camp Liberty, it was the 6th incident in which a service member killed comrades since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The longer men and women are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan the greater the incidence of such psychological problems; the more likely you are to see your comrades getting killed and wounded. The chronic stressors of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) wearing heavy body armor, perpetual mortal anxiety, repeated absences from family, they all take a profound toll.
20% of military service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, or major depression (that’s 300,000 Vets), and are also committing suicide at nearly twice the national average. We are not meeting the medical and psychological needs of these soldiers and their families, until they end up in an ER or a Camp Liberty. We need to be doing more for these men and women.
Forty years ago I refused to go to Viet Nam, and served my military obligation the Indian Health Service instead. I hated the war, and judged badly those soldiers who chose to fight in it. Until I had to treat those returning Native American veterans who were so traumatized by their involvements that they could not fully live in the world they returned to. I swore then, I would never again confuse my feelings about war with the warriors who fight it.
Those Native veterans, who adjusted best, came from traditional tribes and families and participated in a variety of Returning Warrior ceremonies. The soldiers were honored and ritually cleansed from whatever lingering stains of war might still cling to their spirit. We need to be doing such honoring ceremonies for all our returning Vets and we’d see a lot less disability and suffering from this disease.
The only returning warrior ceremony I can participate in for Dr. Matt Houseal is to say the Hebrew prayer for the dead. I will say Kaddish for a year to honor his memory, a man of courage and a committed healer. And I will pray for Sgt. Russell whose trials are still to come, to honor his service and acknowledge the enormity of his personal sacrifice.