As a child, I gave little thought to my father being a World War II veteran. The fathers of all my friends were veterans. Forty percent of Americans served in WWII. Yet for all its horrors, as many WWII veterans will tell you, it was a cakewalk compared to what today's troops have faced and continue to endure in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are many key differences, but as Marguerite Guzman Bouvard's new book, The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan fiercely reveals, the most salient one is how few of our citizens are bearing the burden of today's wars: one percent. That difference is at the heart of all the other differences, especially the extreme nature of our new veterans' trauma. The Invisible Wounds of War has convinced me that our young veterans suffer a greater degree of trauma from that of veterans of prior wars.
Troops in World War II typically fought for nine months, some for two years. They knew who their enemy was. The rules of war applied. And their nation supported them, not just with words but with deeds: rations, victory gardens, work in manufacturing weapons.
Today's troops have known three, four, even five deployments. They have come home, only to leave again. Their enemy is invisible and omnipresent, taking the shape of even children. So many are returning now that, even though we are fully aware of the phenomena of PTSD, our Veterans Administration is overwhelmed. Accessing mental health care often takes two or more years. Because only one percent of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, very few of us know such details. Very few of us know a veteran. Bouvard introduces them to us.
Noah Pierce enlisted in 2002, at age seventeen, his mother, Cheryl, unable to dissuade him. He participated in the invasion of Iraq, serving on the front lines, entering Iraqi homes, witnessing the deaths of close friends and innocent civilians. Yet as much as his mother tried to support him while he was deployed, she was "unprepared for the changes in her son" when he returned. After his homecoming, when she thought his war had ended, she watched a new one begin. Bouvard quotes from a letter Cheryl wrote to the members of Congress: "Even though (my son) came home physically, mentally, he never returned home. Noah had PTSD and was a prisoner of war in his own mind and left untreated, the PTSD progressively worsened." Unable to receive the help he needed from his local VA, Noah committed suicide to end his anguish. Cheryl has become an activist, working for the implementation of mandatory counseling for all returning troops within six months of completion of their service.
An awful pattern of psychic damage emerges from Bouvard's profiles of veterans and their families. In war, our service men and women helplessly witness brutal deaths of close comrades and innocent Iraqi and Afghanistans. They suffer sexual harassment and even rape by superiors. They become both agents and victims of violence and death and then return home to a nation not informed or interested in engaging with their suffering. Their training often prevents them from admitting the need to seek counseling. When they do, they encounter a Veterans Administration inadequately resourced. Our weak economy does not offer the jobs and support they need.
The veterans' spouses, parents, and children become the new front line, advocating for the veterans and fighting for them to have access to indispensable mental health care. Every day in this country, a veteran commits suicide, a terrifying fact. The families fight, every moment, to keep their son or daughter, their husband or wife alive. On that front line, even when their veteran survives, the family becomes traumatized.
Entire families are suffering, most of them very alone.
Because they are the one percent.
The Invisible Wounds of War tells their stories—those of the veterans, their mothers, their fathers, their spouses, their children—to create a full portrait of the consequence of these wars. Rather than presenting the interviews themselves, Bouvard expertly weaves the individuals' words into an overarching narrative of war's devastation of the spirit. She introduces these people in their full humanity, so we know their unique gifts, characteristics, and shattered dreams. (As excellent and succinct as the introductory overview of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is, I wish the book began immediately with the veterans' stories, as they are the key to engaging even the most clueless of readers. I also wish there was an appendix of the referenced programs and nonprofits that individuals have created around the country.) Bouvard's writing makes it all but impossible to read of the costs our wars have had for these veterans and not feel compassion. And outrage.
Stirring outrage in the reader is The Invisible Wounds of War's greatest achievement. Those of us in the ninety-nine percent not at risk in these wars must feel outrage for what our depending on a volunteer army has done to those who volunteer. If our government had instituted a draft after 9/11, would these wars have continued for the past nine years? The stories contained in The Invisible Wounds of War show us, without one word of commentary, how immoral our country's reliance on a volunteer army is. We are collaborators in our military making cannon fodder out of our service women and men. So the ninety-nine percent of us need not worry about our sons or husbands being called to war, those who go—because they want to serve our country or because a recruiter enticed them with deceitful promises—become subject to multiple deployments that seal their fate. The rest of us avert our eyes.
The Invisible Wounds of War opens our eyes wide. We see the devastation done in our names so we can keep shopping and watching "Survivors." We feel the outrage. Bouvard encourages us to turn that outrage into action and get out there and help these families.
Marguerite Guzman Bouvard has written several books on human rights as well as poetry. She is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
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