Forgotten casualties of Iraq war

It is understandable that the media and community tend to focus on the people killed in action in wars, as well as on the civilian casualties in the war zone. But it does mean that the ongoing impacts on the soldiers who return home can be forgotten – especially those who return apparently unwounded.

It is an unfortunate tendency of governments to be more enthusiastic about sending people to war than they are about caring for the same people after they return. It seems this is especially bad in the USA. Despite the thousands of causalities their defence personnel have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan – much greater not just in actual numbers but proportionally as well – this story (found through the Huffington Post) reports the astonishing fact that suicides of returned US veterans may actually be greater in number than those killed in action.

The number of suicides among veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may exceed the combat death toll because of inadequate mental health care, the U.S. government’s top psychiatric researcher said. Community mental health centers, hobbled by financial limits, haven’t provided enough scientifically sound care, especially in rural areas, said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He briefed reporters today at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in Washington.

Insel echoed a Rand Corporation study published last month that found about 20 percent of returning U.S. soldiers have post- traumatic stress disorder or depression, and only half of them receive treatment. About 1.6 million U.S. troops have fought in the two wars since October 2001, the report said. About 4,560 soldiers had died in the conflicts as of today, the Defense Department reported on its Web site.

Based on those figures and established suicide rates for similar patients who commonly develop substance abuse and other complications of post-traumatic stress disorder, “it’s quite possible that the suicides and psychiatric mortality of this war could trump the combat deaths,” Insel said.

Sometimes even when reading reports like this we can think about it mostly in terms of numbers, so it is worth reminding ourselves that these numbers represent individual people, as well as many more families and friends directly affected (as of course are the many many people in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives are traumatised and shattered by war). This story mentions one instance, which I link to to put a human face on the statistics. The story also states that “an estimated 1,000 attempts a month now reported”.

I am sure the support provided in Australia to returned personnel is on the whole better, but I also am sure we can do better, particularly in regards to support for mental health.

UPDATE: On 9 May, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin made a low key announcement of a new mental health initiative for current service personnel, veterans and their families called At Ease.

The initiative is designed to meet the mental health needs of personnel returning from service in areas of conflict or from peace keeping missions but will be open to all service personnel and their families. A 24 hour crisis hotline has also been made available.

Part of the rationale behind At Ease to raise awareness of mental health issues within the service community and to give service personnel and their families a chance to recognise deterioration in mental health and what to do and where to go about seeking help in dealing with the problem.

This is a timely announcement and one which I hope will help address the shortfall in mental health services for Australia’s defence force personnel.

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  1. The U.S.A. administration is pretty sick,and it maybe why there is gumming in the problem of entering Burma.I want to pull a Rabbit out of the hat for Americans,Burmese,and even Iran.Because Iran looks like the next port of call for postponed suicides,I ask through you Senator,as a worthwhile pursuit with no embarassment of any country in mind.Would Iran be open to exchanging fuel per unit used if the Americans drop food etc. in,or are allowed by the Burmese Government hopefully!? If it was seen by the Burmese Authorities,that the U.S.A. presence was being supported by a direct fuel use exchange by Iran,this would show the Burmese it is a serious Peace time intention.Where essentially enemy status is reduced down to nothing.The benefits for both the U.S.A. and Iran in doing this and agreeing are enormous in terms of reducing the risk of more deaths in Burma,U.S.A. citizens as soldiers,and Iranians.And doesnt undermine anyone,but gives sound footing for human progress.Neither blackmail or bribery or any other type of manipulation.The Iranians will also get more than a loss of revenue back by this agreed upon exchange.

  2. I’ve read recently,that there’s 100,000 Iraqi/Afghani war veterans homeless in the US.I also understand, that like after the 1st gulf war & Vietnam,the administration is still denying the reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.In fact,they hedge & deny for ages & then insist the person has a mental illness,thus negating the responsibility to care for or pay a pension etc.The Bush Administration has reduced the amounts paid to families & serving personnel.For these reasons & others,the Administration is now taking ex prisoners (criminals)to make up the numbers in overseas actions.What we see in front of the camera is the opposite to what the reality is, both while in service in Iraq/Afghanistan or when they return maimed/injured or psychologically damaged.It should be noted,that those who are ‘private’ service personnel or mercenaries are paid heaps more & are better cared for than those in uniform-they aren’t counted in the official US death toll either-another clever little act of deception.Like those in authority who were the real villains at Abu Graib,the mercenaries engaged in those disgraceful torture activities have also escaped justice! I understand,that the only changes,have been the removal of the cameras.Read ‘American Torture’ if you have any doubts!The US has been engaged in it, at least since the end of WW2!

    I watched Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko,which shows among other things,the gross neglect of those who worked among the toxins etc at ‘ground zero’-they’re being left to fend for themselves in a country that sees health care as a part of corporate wealth only.Many have serious health problems, some are dying,and even more will develop life-threatening health problems. They weren’t looked after during the clean up re correct clothes,breathing apparatus,despite constant requests to the then authorities.All the while they’re hailed as heroes.Same as military personnel!Worth watching!

  3. SBS showed the whole film of Taxi to the Dark Side on Tuesday night.

    A few months in jail for a couple of low level marines for beating an innocent man to death.

    The film made me sick to my stomach and we are complicit in all these horror stories of torture and murder.

  4. Andrew Bartlett:

    Yes, Australia does now have the VVCS which provides excellent support for veterans, peacekeepers and their families in a narrower range than did the U.S. Vet-Center system. There is no doubt whatsoever that VVCS counselling and training has prevented many suicides – and worse – and it has done a mighty job in restoring many many returned service personnel and their families to tolerable civilian life …. [therefore, since it is such a useful beneficial service – in keeping with traditional Australian practice, I expect funding for VVCS to be cut in Tuesday evening’s Budget].

    However, you did say

    “I am sure the support provided in Australia to returned personnel is on the whole better, but I also am sure we can do better ….”

    Do you mean like rectifying the unjust, military-rank dependent, degrading, inefficient pension determination process? Or making unfair anti-veteran discrimination in employment and education illegal? Or providing useful civilian resettlement training?

    My oath we can do a lot better …. what’s more, much of that essential improvement can be made at a stroke of the pen and at to further cost whatsoever to the Commonwealth Treasury!

    Naomi Cartlege [2]:

    Thank you for pointing out how that glorious warrior-king, George W.Bush and his gangplank-dodging cronies, have wrecked the American veterans’ administration system. When I went to the United States, back in the Eighties, doing SELF-FUNDED study into their system, it was superior to the Australian veterans’ affairs system. Now, it is in a real mess.

    You are wrong about ex-prisoners going into military service. Once they had been thoroughly screened and properly trained, many would make excellent soldiers. Besides, the basic Christian value of personal redemption is one of the things that distinguishes our side from al-Qaeda, isn’t it?

  5. How much easier it would have been to send our illustrious leader (John Howard) and George Bush across to Iraq to discuss these matters with Saddam Hussein.

    If he didn’t want to share his oil or hang himself, that’s only 2 dead.

  6. It is rather intersting to see that the victims of natural disasters (Burma) get more attention and criticism of the government than the victims of war perpetrators (Iraq).

  7. What’s even more interesting is the hypocrisy. Mushareff was our brutal military dictator so we took weeks to get any aid to Pakistan after the massive earthquake a couple of years ago.

    It fell to a “terrorist” group to give aid and assistance. Australia sent one small contingent of doctors many weeks later.

    In fact we spent millions and millions locking up Afghans claiming they were evil Pakistanis.

    It seems if it is our brute we don’t care too much about the civilians but when Laura Bush came out ranting all I could see was tens of thousands of black Americans sitting on roofs in New Orleans while Bush fiddled.

  8. Andrew Bartlett:


    Back in 1980, the news media carried reports of the National President of the VVAA, Holt McMinn, mentioning 470 suicides among Australian veterans of the Viet-Nam War. We jumped on him and did what we could to kill off the story and to misdirect any journalists who got too curious.

    The story itself was true enough. The figure of 0.8% VN War veterans committing suicide might even have been a bit low.

    It was sad when veterans committed suicide by firearm or by a similar obvious method but those cases were relatively uncomplicated.

    HOWEVER the last thing we wanted was for any widows who had been paid out by insurance companies or workers compensation authorities for an “accident” or “untimely death” to be hounded for the return of the money. Why the hell should widows and their families be forced to endure triple tragedy?

    Dishonest? Of course!

    As dishonest as sending soldiers off to war, promising to look after them and their families if things went wrong then callously cheating and humiliating them.

    As dishonest as veterans’ affairs policy makers collecting fat salaries for excluding ill and injured veterans from the DVA system by bureaucratic trickery and allowing them to be dumped onto the state health systems whilst denying any responsibility for them.

    As dishonest as the loud-mouthed pompous base-wallah officers – who had never “heard a shot fired in anger” nor “faced an angry man” – shooting their mouths off about the supposed “pre-existing moral weakness” of those poor devils who had been driven to take their own lives after returning from a war.

    Had DVA been doing the job the taxpayers were paying it to do, instead of emulating the old Native Affairs Department in its treatment of those for whom it was supposed to be responsible, such “dishonesty[??]” would never have been necessary.

  9. Andrew Bartlett:

    You put up this topic almost a week ago.

    Given that as Australia becomes more and more enmired in conflicts so then a lot more Australian families are at risk of losing a loved ones to suicide after returning from war, I was surprised at how few comments there have been on the topic.

    Yes, the preferred way for Australia’s failed elite to deal with a problem is to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist and hope that in doing so, it will simply vanish. However, your readers and participants cover a broad range of Australian society and not just a handful in elite cicles …. so the paucity of comment on this topic is puzzling.

    Now down to business ….


    Instead of relying solely on investigations into several [though certainly not most] suicides of war veterans to see what went wrong ….let’s also have research done into those war veterans and civilians thought likely, because of their dreadful experiences in war and afterwards, to commit suicide but yet did not.

    Merely praising such people as being tenacious, resiliant, strong-willed, well-trained, determined, stoic and so on is nothing but a cheap cop-out.

    It tells us nothing about why such people refused to commit suicide.

    It tells us absolutely nothing about how we can prevent the suicide of young Australian war veterans who have the potential to contribute so much to to this country and to their families after returning from war.

    Cost? The cost of running a research team probing this serious problem is LESS than the total cost of training and deploying a single SAS Regiment soldier on overseas service!

    The fuddy-duddies in the ADF, DVA and some ex-service groups won’t like researchers prying into dark corners but damn them …. too many good diggers have died already.

    This is research that must be done …. and done before more preventable tragedies happen.

  10. Andrew Bartlett:


    1.FALSE EXPECTATIONS OF WAR – “Protecting” young people from learning about the realities of war whilst over-exposing them to stylized oversimplified fantasies of war in movies and computer games is a recipe for later tragedy.

    Similarly, the well-intentioned calling of war ‘bad’ – without any understanding or explanation of what happens in war can, paradoxically, also create false expectations of war.

    2.BAD TRAINING. Training soldiers to be merely killing machines leads to personal tragedy and to military defeat – as the Viet-Nam War showed.

    Right from Day 1, soldiers should have been trained to cope with war being complex, confusing, uncertain, usually boring and often uncomfortable. Bad training killed many good soldiers by overemphasising rigid drills and neglecting vital training in fieldcraft, scrounging and making-do, casualty treatment …. and the Enemy’s language and way of thinking,

    3.“TOUGH GUY” ATTITUDES IN UNITS – Peer pressure to stereotype and despise the Enemy and the civilian populace, to bottle-up feelings and to force soldiers affected by their experience to “stop being so weak”.

    4.LACK OF UNDERSTANDING ON RETURN – How many of those who committed suicide felt that they had risked their lives for nothing? Was their war service despised, minimized or ignored?

    Were their families persuaded – by stupid social norms – not to talk with them about their own personal experience of war, or, worse yet, encouraged to ask unintentionally stupid questions? If returned soldiers couldn’t talk frankly with their own families, who could they talk with?

    Too often veterans found their problems were exacerbated by inappropriate attitudes, behavior and policies in the armed forces, the veterans’ affairs bureaucracy and some ex-service organizations.

    The real tragedy is that each of these factors in the suicide of some war veterans was preventable!

  11. Yes, it’s all very sad. Insightful, passionately expressed points Graham.

    I noticed that a number of GAP YEAR students who’ve got experience w/ Defence are considering joining up. Let’s hope this government is much wiser than the last…for the sake of these younguns…& any who might get in their way if they are overly stressed. No more sending Aussies to war zones that benefit THE FEW over the many.

    Good to see you on here philip…thought i’d come across you before your postings on RTS.

    The suicide rate of returned American soldiers is outrageous…& I imagine similar is happening over in Iraq & Israel. The Busheviks & their enablers have alot to answer for. TRUST will be lost individual by individual over time…til’ most soldiers will seriously question the SANITY of the mission & the motivations of those who sent them.

    I imagine most who continue to hold onto the belief that they are participating in a JUST war are either totally pumped, or have saved some Iraqi’s life or protected a community over there, or are afraid of speaking out in case of losing their pension/health care plan & other benefits, or are just plain gung-ho, bloodthirsty & loopy (which might relate to a form of brainwashing)…or are in denial because their world is wobbling…or don’t want to let their family &/or fellow soldiers down.

    All very sad.

  12. Senator Andrew Bartlett:

    Please do one thing before you complete your current term of duty in our Parliament, a thing that might help prevent more suicides and help reduce the impact of psychlogical harm on our troops and their families. .

    Please get your fellow parliamentarians – of both houses and of all parties and persuasions – to enforce compulsory, mandatory psychological awareness training on ALL members of the Australian Defence Force, regardless of their rank, their unit/ship, their job or how many conflicts they have been through or how busy or important they say they are.

    Real training. Not a tick-and-flick multiple-choice questionnaire. Not sit-and-doze lectures. With absolutely NO chance of promotion whatsoever without passing it. Training in:

    * Coping with uncertainty, discomfort, confusion, reality, injury, constant threat and dread …. and understanding your own reactions.

    * Psychiatric first aid for you, your mates …. and for your Diggers.

    * Understanding the Enemy, their basic essential language, their motivations.

    * Ways of adjusting successfully back into civil society in Australia.

    And a lot more.

    At least 10 or 12 four hour sessions which must be completed and verified as being thoroughly understood.

    Real commanders will be glad of whatever help you can give them and their troops/crew …. even though they might dislike politicians in general.

    However, the mess commandoes and wardroom warriors will all howl like banshees about politicians interfering in the ADF. Let them whinge and bellyache. The gutless wonders did nothing for decades except sink the boot into the poor devils harmed during their war service.

    If they won’t co-operate: get tough with them for a nice change, boot them out of the ADF …. and brand their dirty discharges “KNOWN AL-QAEDA SUPPORTER”.

    Too many good Diggers have died.

    You and your fellow parliamentarians together can help save lives.

  13. Andrew Bartlett:

    Back on comment 9, I said I was surprised how little comment there had been on this topic.

    Here are a few likely explanations:

    [a]. War in Iraq and Afghanistan has been dragging on for too long – and for a lot of people, it’s the same old, same old. Roadside bombs/IEDs, distressed civilians, tough-guy soldiers, etc., etc,. etc,

    They are bored.

    [b]. Ripple effect, on family and friends, of those directly involved in the War is not felt by the majority of the populace.

    It doesn’t touch them personally so they feel no need at all to be concerned.

    [c]. Gladiator syndrome. Soldiers are “paid thousands of dollars” to go off to war; “nobody asked them to go”; “it was all only for Bush and Howard”. [definitely NOT my own opinions!]. There is an attitude around that soldiers take great risks …. for our entertainment, perhaps? …. and that, in some perverse way, if they get hurt, it’s their own fault.

    ADF’s Public Relations has an unrecognized serious problem here – I wish them the best of luck in changing apathetic and antagonistic public attitudes.

    [d]. Celebrities – the real opinion formers – don’t mention The War at all so why should the rest of the populace?

    The ADF did have it’s own celebrity for a short while: the unfortunate dead soldier Jake Kovco …. but in a populace that demands fresh amusements every day, that tune is now off the hit-parade – as will be Burma next week..

    [e]. Expectations. Sick expectations. We haven’t quite reached the stage where a soldier back from Iraq or Afghanistan is asked “So you haven’t committed suicide yet?” but I think that is only a matter of time.

    None of these public attitudes helps service personnel back from war pick up their lives again. So what can be done?

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