Staff Sergeant Eric Fidelis Alva was the first Marine seriously injured in the Iraq War when he stepped on a landmine on the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 21, 2003.
He went to Iraq because it was his duty, he came out of the closet because he is an American and shouldn’t have to lie about who he is.
First, thanks for recognizing that I am a Marine. Second, to answer your question, I have tons and tons of friends that were in the military at the time who knew I was gay because I confided in them. Everybody had the same reaction: “What’s the big deal?” … The respect was still there. Your job is what you’re doing at its best. Your personal life, your private life, is something you do after work. What’s funny is, when I was based in San Diego, Calif., people would go to a gay club and everyone would have a haircut like mine. They had their dog tags on. But come Monday morning, nobody talked about it, nobody dealt with it, everybody was back to work.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
― President Dwight David Eisenhower
“Then there was this freedom the little guys were always getting killed for. Was it freedom from another country? Freedom from work or disease or death? Freedom from your mother-in-law? Please mister give us a bill of sale on this freedom before we go out and get killed. Give us a bill of sale drawn up plainly in advance what we’re getting killed for… so we can be sure after we’ve won your war that we’ve got the same kind of freedom we bargained for.”
― Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
INVESTIGATION PROVES WHISTLEBLOWER CLAIMS THAT VA NEGLECTED SOME SUICIDAL VETERANS | FORBES
The Department of Veterans Affairs has substantiated some of the allegations made last year by a former epidemiologist who claimed that the agency neglected assisting suicidal veterans and was slow to release important research data.
The former employee, Dr. Steven S. Coughlin, was a principal investigator at the VA’s Office of Public Health until resigning in December 2012. Coughlin testified in March 2013 before an investigative and oversight panel of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. (See “Whistleblower Accuses Government Of Neglecting Suicidal Veterans And Suppressing Science”.)
The VA’s Office of Research and Oversight investigated Coughlin’s claims and completed a report on its findings last summer. It did not brief Congressional staff of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on its report until January, according to Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).
After interviewing several VA staff and reviewing 3,000 pages of relevant documentation, the investigators substantiated three of 10 allegations made by Coughlin:
VA lost medical data obtained from the children and spouses of Gulf War veterans that might have demonstrated an association between illnesses, including those related to wartime exposure, in service members and their offspring;
Coughlin’s superiors responded to his concerns in a way that could have been perceived as threatening or retaliatory;
VA neglected to contact participants in a study of Gulf War veterans who shared suicidal thoughts or feelings.
Regarding Coughlin’s other claims, the investigators often said the disagreements between Coughlin and his superiors resulted from conflicting priorities.
While Coughlin, for example, said his supervisors were deliberately withholding important data regarding exposure of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to toxins and inhalation hazards, those interviewed about the claim said the data needed to be cleaned and that analysis should focus on the main subjects of the study, which are traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The report urges VA to complete the analyses “as expeditiously as possible.”
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Coughlin, who is now a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, told me that the decision to report his concerns took a toll on him professionally and personally. “I quit my job and left because it wasn’t just one ethical problem, it was a whole constellation,” he said. “I finally had enough.”
He remains concerned that veterans participating in different VA studies who expressed suicidal feelings have not or may still not get a follow-up call from a mental health provider. Before he left VA, he was eventually permitted to involve clinicians in a 20-year study of 30,000 Gulf War veterans. A team of social workers and psychologists placed follow-up phone calls to nearly 100 veterans who had reported suicidal behavior. The report found that a smaller group of veterans participating in a separate study required follow-up; six veterans were subsequently contacted.
Coughlin’s supervisors told investigators that they had not rushed to develop a plan for contacting suicidal veterans because they felt doing so “represented a desirable innovation, rather than an immediate need.” They also worried that calling veterans would violate privacy and confidentiality guarantees and “thereby undermine Veterans’ trust in future [Office of Public Health] surveys.”
Since the investigation concluded, VA has taken several steps to address Coughlin’s substantiated claims.
Dr. Tom Puglisi, executive director of the Office of Research Oversight at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), said in a statement that the “evolving standard is that participants demonstrating suicidal ideation in research studies should be contacted promptly for clinical follow-up, and VHA expects that future [Office of Public Health] surveys will adhere to this standard.”
The report recommends increased Institutional Review Board oversight for research conducted by the agency. Office of Public Health supervisors have participated in human resources training in conflict resolution. That office has also established timelines for analyzing and publishing data from major studies on Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, including results that might indicate a neurological explanation for Gulf War Illness.
In a statement, the agency acknowledged the results of the investigation and said the its “highest priority” is the mental health of veterans.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes and respects the service, dedication and many challenges of Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and is committed to improving the health and well-being of these Veterans,” Puglisi said. “Research is a vital component in improving that treatment.”
In the spring of 2002, an Army major named Peter Kilner submitted an unusual essay to Military Review, a journal published by the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Kilner argued that combat leaders have an obligation to justify the killing their soldiers do. “Soldiers who kill reflexively in combat will likely one day reconsider their actions reflectively,” he wrote. “If they are unable to justify to themselves that they killed another human being, they will likely, and understandably, suffer enormous guilt” that could balloon into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Top brass who ignored the issue, he concluded, were “treating their soldiers as commodities, not as persons.”
As an active-duty infantryman suggesting that a soldier’s most basic task could be emotionally self-destructive, Kilner had broken a giant taboo. Not surprisingly, his article didn’t go over well. Former drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, a colleague of Kilner’s at West Point, dismissed his argument out of hand. “He and some of the older generation really felt like, ‘Soldiers kill; they have no problem killing the enemy,’ ” Kilner recalls. “The question seemed to him just not a question.” (McCaffrey did not respond to requests for comment.) At one point, a few of Kilner’s superiors tried to discourage him from presenting his ideas publicly. “They told me it’s bad PR,” he says. “I literally had a colonel pull me in the closet and threaten to break me if I spoke to the press.”
But Kilner may have been on to something. Military doctors estimate that 20 percent of soldiers and 42 percent of reservists have returned from Iraq with some kind of psychological problem. Army suicides have more than doubled since 2001, hitting a 27-year high in 2007. The military has failed to address these problems in a systematic way. An investigation by National Public Radio found that the Army had punished and kicked out soldiers with PTSD; two veterans groups are currently suing the Department of Veterans Affairs for its “shameful failures” in providing mental health treatment.
In 2006, a Pentagon team concluded that the biggest predictors of mental illness were the length of a soldier’s deployment and how often he experienced combat. Yet Kilner says the real issue is not the time you do, but how you deal with that time. “People don’t have nightmares about, ‘It’s another Groundhog Day.’ They have nightmares about the killing they’ve done and seen.”
Now a lieutenant colonel, Kilner helps run the Center for Company Level Leaders at the US Military Academy at West Point. He’s been interested in the ethics and impact of killing since 1994, when he was a young Airborne captain preparing to deploy to Haiti. A devout Catholic, he asked an Army chaplain what justified the killing he might do. “The president says it’s right, so it’s right,” the chaplain replied. Kilner didn’t end up killing anyone, but he wondered if the Army had mentally prepared him to do so.
"When the military lists wartime causes of mental illness," he told me in his office overlooking the Hudson River, "they talk about, ‘Oh, it’s hot; oh, it’s scary,’ looking at what happens to soldiers without any mention of the violent things soldiers actually do.” By interviewing combat veterans, Kilner hopes to spur an internal debate between traditionalists who say any discussion of killing undermines morale, and those who say the military is ignoring a major cause—perhaps the major cause—of PTSD.
One of the soldiers Kilner has talked with is Major Rob Hefner, a 42-year-old Texan who ditched a stateside post for a combat tour in Iraq. One day in June 2005, Hefner came under fire at an Iraqi army checkpoint. He spotted a figure with a rifle approximately 300 feet away. “He was gonna shoot at my soldiers,” Hefner recalls. “That is not a permissible action.” He raised his M-4, zeroed in on the man’s chest, and fired once. “At the time I fired the shot, all I felt was the satisfaction of seeing a round hit its intended target, like being out on the range,” he says.
After the firefight, Hefner went to look for the body. “I really can’t answer why,” he says. “Probably a part of me wanted to humanize the guy.” Hefner asked the Iraqis what they intended to do with the corpse. “We don’t bury dogs,” one replied. “They left him there to rot, and for weeks, if the wind was right, you could smell him,” Hefner says.
"I didn’t regret in any way, shape, or form what I did. But neither did I delude myself by saying it was the right thing to do." He stops to think about his next words. "I’m okay with having done a wrong thing for the right reasons."
Getting soldiers like Hefner to talk is not easy, partly due to etiquette. “As crazy as it is, it’s a question that’s just impolite to ask,” Kilner explains. When he first approached soldiers online, he recalls, “My question—’How do you justify killing to yourself?’—rubbed some people really wrong. I remember one letter started, ‘Who the hell are you to question whether what I did was right or wrong?’” One soldier told Kilner that he should be spending his time “worrying about how to kill people.”
In his research, which has included two monthlong trips to Iraq, Kilner has noted a pattern. Soldiers whose commanders openly discuss the dilemmas of killing before and after combat appear to cope well with their experiences. Soldiers who lack that support fall into isolation or depression. He paraphrases psychologist and retired Lt. Colonel David Grossman, the author of On Killing: “If you go into it cracked, you come out of it shattered. If you go into it strong, you come out stronger.” Hefner agrees with that assessment. “Let’s be honest. Most of our trigger pullers are kids, 18, 19 years old. How many of our 18- and 19-year-olds are anything but cracked?”
Clinicians have paid little attention to Kilner’s research, in part because it’s entirely anecdotal. It is difficult to estimate how many veterans might be adversely affected by the stress of killing because the military doesn’t collect statistics on how many have killed in the line of duty, not even among those who are treated for depression or PTSD. The lasting psychological consequences of killing are “strikingly under-researched,” according to Dr. Brett T. Litz, associate director of the National Center for PTSD. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we are just now getting serious about scientifically evaluating the unique psychological and social scars of killing and other potentially morally injurious experiences in Iraq.”
Many of the soldiers I’ve spoken with say that the military’s response to combat stress is ineffective. The Army provides soldiers with pocket guides on combat stress that feature kernels of wisdom such as “Try to look calm and in control” and “Drink plenty of fluids.” When they return from overseas, servicemen and -women are offered a questionnaire that is supposed to screen for PTSD. However, it does not ask directly if a soldier has killed anyone.
Soldiers who advocate a more honest discussion believe it can only come from their combat-tested officers and colleagues. “The answer is not more PTSD awareness and shrinks,” Hefner says. “Soldiers don’t need to lay on someone’s couch and talk about their childhood. They need the company of other soldiers…After all, why does the VFW exist?”
Kilner agrees, but he doesn’t expect the conversation to start soon. With 195,000 soldiers currently on combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he explains, “Everyone’s really busy.”
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Pharmaceutical companies wooed academic leaders, ghostwrote articles, suppressed damaging health data and lavished doctors with gifts to make prescribing powerful psychotropic drugs to children a blockbuster profit center, a trail of lawsuits over the past two decades shows.
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
Sixty years after the Supreme Court declared an end to “separate but equal” education, ProPublica partners with The Atlantic to examine the causes and consequences of school resegregation. Our investigation focuses on Tuscaloosa’s city schools, which are among the most rapidly resegregating in the country—it is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story of devastating consequences shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight.