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Pressing Issues: War Trauma: The Other 'Stress Test'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pressing Issues: War Trauma: The Other 'Stress Test'

Article excerpt

By this point, we should not be surprised to see the media, after a brief flurry of coverage, quickly drop the story of John Russell, an Army sergeant being treated for mental issues who in early May gunned down five colleagues at a stress clinic in Baghdad. That's why I was startled to see Bob Herbert highlight this episode in his New York Times column on May 19 under the title, "War's Psychic Toll." It was the first major mention I'd seen in a few days.

The slaughter of five comrades by a "stressed out" U.S. soldier truly is a tragedy -- but should not have come as a shock. It's also

richly symbolic, with added "poignancy," as Herbert puts it. That's why the story should be fully explored.

Some of us have warned for years about this kind of thing happening, with many in the media ignoring the effects of the war on our soldiers and veterans, or paying attention for just a short while and then moving along.

Of course, there are exceptions, such as Salon's Mark Benjamin and Bob Herbert. The latter mirrored my view when he wrote that he "couldn't have been less surprised" when he learned of the fratricide in Baghdad.

Herbert also observed: "The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation's willful denial of that toll has been just as profound."

Suicides both in Iraq and among vets back home have been unusually high almost from the beginning of the war and have surged in recent months. Also alarming is the number of veterans with brain trauma or mental problems. These figures get reported when a study emerges, and then are forgotten. At least President Obama has upped money for treatment.

Nearly one in five American soldiers deployed in Iraq -- now more than 300,000 -- suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, according to an oft-cited RAND Corp. study. Regular use of antidepressants in the war zones is widespread, a first in American wars.

I have written about soldier suicides for almost six years now. I always have plenty to write about, unfortunately. And now, mass murder.

A week after the Russell incident, Sig Christenson, longtime military reporter for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News and former Iraq embed, wrote a moving piece about the troubling suicide rate. …

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