A veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas Burke has on-the-ground knowledge of war. Because he’s a cerebral guy who has studied military philosophy, he also knows this uncomfortable truth about infantry troops like him: In the big-picture view of war strategists, they have long been expendable.
They shouldn’t be to us. As U.S. troops continue their open-ended engagement in the Middle East, the public and politicians have a duty to remember the human consequences of war. While recognizing the imperative for troop discipline, we must insist on fair treatment of psychologically damaged veterans when their service is over.
To its credit, the U.S. military no longer treats soldiers like cannon fodder. An elite fighting force, it invests heavily in troops’ training, sends them to battle with precision equipment and, thanks to advances in medicine, keeps more of them alive. But when the warriors come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which happens with an estimated 10 to 20% of troops — are they still treated like valuable assets? Burke and many other veterans are answering “no.”
Though damaged by his two tours, Burke, 26, functions well now, five years after a drug charge and suicide attempt got him kicked out of the military with an other-than-honorable discharge. Chair of the Ivy League Veterans Council, the former marine is studying for a graduate divinity degree at Yale, advocating for veterans and running for the Connecticut legislature.
His seemingly bright future has a cloud over it, though, as do the futures of tens of thousands of other troops discharged in recent years for misconduct related to mental health issues. These unfavorable discharges severely injure ex-warriors’ job prospects and access to Veterans Administration health care, educational grants and other benefits.
PTSD is not carte blanche. Burke believes it cannot justify violence against fellow troops or civilians, either during deployment or when troops return home. Nor can it excuse dereliction of duty that directly exposes one’s unit to lethal harm. In the military, tough discipline is not a luxury. It is as important among today’s high-tech volunteers as it was among the last generation’s draftees.
But PTSD is not a discipline problem. It is a medical issue. That’s why it’s disturbing to learn from ample veterans’ testimonies that the military’s review panels have often dismissed PTSD claims by troops appealing their less-than-honorable discharges — indicative of an old-school focus on discipline disconnected from medical reality.
Burke’s story is instructive. He befriended a group of about 15 Afghan boys during deployment in Helmand Province. “I loved those kids,” says Burke, who prizes a photo of himself walking down a dusty road with the boys surrounding him, smiles all around. A few weeks after the photo was taken, Burke and his platoon had to haul away the dismembered remains of many of the kids after they accidentally set off an unexploded bomb.
Devastated, Burke self-medicated with hashish — like most of his platoon, he says — and eventually attempted suicide. A fellow Marine’s intervention foiled the try. Six of his “brothers,” Burke notes, have succeeded at their suicide attempts.
“Fighting to resist evil is not only just, but praiseworthy,” reflects Burke, a Connecticut native who grew up with a robust love of country and respect for the military. “As a society, we have a responsibility to tend to the wounds that troops come by in engaging that fight.”
The years-long scandal at the Veterans Administration (ex-troops dying during endless waits for care, records-tampering to obscure the negligence, etc.) shows how imperfectly the United States has handled that responsibility even when the injuries are obvious. When it comes to men and women bearing psychological wounds, we’ve done even worse.
To address that deficiency, Burke and a “squad” of fellow veterans are lobbying Congress to pass legislation requiring review boards to start from a presumption that PTSD is a factor in the conduct that often gets troops booted with less-than-honorable discharges. PTSD deserves this kind of serious consideration. Our men and women in arms succumb to it not because they are weak or crazy, but because psychological trauma is what happens to those who witness incredible brutality, take lives and risk their own while fighting our wars.
Not only fairness but hard-headed logic, too, compels us to take care of our ex-troops. In terms of tax dollars expended over the course of ex-troops’ lives. It’s cost-effective to give these people the care and opportunities to help them become healthy and productive citizens again, regardless of the circumstances prompting their exit from the military.
At the university where Burke now studies, the interior walls of Memorial Hall bear inscriptions of the names of more than 900 Yale students and alumni killed in battle all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Let the inscriptions serve as a testament to the reality of war until the day arrives, if ever, that we war no more.
Until then, however, we ought to take a cue from the Christian theology that Burke is now studying and insist on just treatment of those who do our fighting. No one is expendable.