Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, May 04, 2006

When Warriors Come Home

The list of names on the Department of Defense Web site is ever-expanding: Sakoda, Davis, Mills, Gomez Like a disease for which there is no vaccine and no cure, the war in Iraq drags on. American deaths have now passed 2,400. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children have died.

The suffering continues to spread like a fire sprayed with gasoline. Yesterday we heard the tragic story of Jose Gomez, a sergeant in the Army Reserve whose 21-year-old fiancee, Analaura Esparza-Gutierrez, a private, was killed by a roadside bomb in Tikrit in 2003. Last summer Sergeant Gomez, who had served in Iraq himself, was ordered to go back for a second tour. Last Friday he was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

The extent of the suffering caused by the war seldom penetrates the consciousness of most Americans. For the public at large, the dead and the wounded are little more than statistics. They're out of sight, and thus mostly out of mind.

The media are much more focused on the trendy problem of steroids in baseball than, say, the agony of the once healthy young men and women who are now struggling to resurrect their lives after being paralyzed, or losing their eyesight, or shedding one or two or three or even four limbs in Iraq.

The truth is that the suffering comes in myriad forms. I spoke by phone this week with Stefanie Pelkey, a former Army captain who lives in Spring, Tex., with her 3-year-old son, Benjamin. Her husband, Michael, a captain with the First Armored Division, was sent to Iraq just a few weeks after Benjamin was born. Michael was a big man, 6 feet 4 1/2 inches tall, who loved to play golf and, like President Bush, ride his bicycle.

When Captain Pelkey left Iraq and rejoined his family in the summer of 2003, he seemed ''really agitated,'' Ms. Pelkey recalled. He was hyper-vigilant, she said, and insisted on keeping a loaded 9 mm pistol by the bed in their home in Lawton, Okla.

In testimony last year before a presidential commission examining the nation's mental health system, Ms. Pelkey said, ''If only the military community had reached out to family members in some manner to prepare them for, and make them aware of, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, my family's tragedy could have been averted.''

Captain Pelkey's distress intensified over a period of several months. He became unusually forgetful. He developed high blood pressure and chest pains. Eventually he began to experience nightmares. He sought medical help, but it was a long time before anyone discussed the possibility of depression, or explored a possible link between the captain's symptoms and his experiences in Iraq.

A civilian family therapist eventually told Captain Pelkey that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and recommended that he be put on medication. Ms. Pelkey said her husband seemed hopeful after receiving the diagnosis, but just a week later he shot himself to death in their living room.

Ms. Pelkey told me that her husband had been reluctant to discuss his time in Iraq, but she knew that he had seen soldiers die, and that he had been affected by the sight of civilian casualties and the suffering of children.

In Ms. Pelkey's view, her husband was as much a casualty of the war as a soldier killed in combat. ''Just as some soldiers perish from bullet wounds or other trauma of war,'' she said, ''Michael perished from the psychic wounds of war.''

A report published in March in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than a third of the troops who served in Iraq sought help for mental health problems within a year of returning home. That high percentage is deceptive, however. The report said it is likely that ''there are still considerable barriers to care.'' It referred to a prior study that showed that more than 60 percent of the Iraq veterans who screened positively for generalized anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder had not sought treatment.

War brutalizes bodies and it brutalizes minds, but our culture is programmed to keep the savagery below the level of our national consciousness as much as possible. Most of the suffering is done in silence.

I asked Ms. Pelkey, who is trying hard to spread the word about the mental distress inflicted by this war, how she herself was doing. ''It affected me,'' she said. ''I'm on medication for depression and anxiety. I probably will be for a while.''


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