Yesterday I attended the 4th annual Symposium on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) put on by Maine Veterans for Peace (VFP). The event was held at the University of Southern Maine's Hannaford Hall in Portland. About 125 people were in attendance and the crowd included mostly Vietnam-era vets, family members of veterans, and professional counselors and therapists.
The younger veterans, from the 1990's Persian Gulf war, and from the current Afghanistan and Iraq wars, have been slow to come around to events like this. Vietnam veterans often talk about how long it took them to come to grips with the fact that they needed help with the demons they wrestled with after they came home. Many younger veterans it appears are also trying to "do it on their own" or not yet recognizing that they need to get some help.
One young man who was at the event, as a speaker, was Camilo Mejia
who was in the Army and was stationed in Iraq. Mejia became a conscientious objector and refused to return to Iraq on a second deployment.
In May of 2004 Mejia was convicted of desertion by the U.S. military, a charge which can be punishable by death, and was sentenced to a year in jail. He served his time at Fort Sill military prison in Oklahoma and was recognized during his incarceration by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience and was awarded the Courageous Resister Award by Refuse and Resist. He was released in February of 2005 and since then has devoted his time to speaking out against the war in Iraq and encouraging others to understand that being a part of an immoral war was more cowardly than breaking the law: “I was a coward not for leaving the war but for being a part of it in the first place, “ he said.
He has written a book called The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Seargeant Camilo Mejia which details his experience. In August of 2007 Camilo Mejia became the chair of the board for the Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Mejia told his personal story and weaved in his growing knowledge about PTSD. He said that his time in Iraq was a violation of his "contact with the world". He lamented that the "moral and spiritual aspects of PTSD are not part of the Veterans Administration (VA) treatments."
It is "not inherent in humans to kill each other," Mejia said. So the military changed their training after WW II to remove the thought process from killing. Heavy emphasis is now put on the mechanical process - siting the target, breathing, trigger finger position, stance, rifle placement - the dehumanization of the "enemy".
Soldiers would not want to kill "if people have time to think about what we are doing," Mejia said. The military does not teach you how to turn off that mechanical act of killing. "When you violate the contract you have with yourself you have a moral injury," he reflected.
After firing 11 bullets at a young man (about 16 years old) who was going to throw a grenade "my mind erased the time that I fired on him," he told us. He afterward had to go and sit down and count the numbers of bullets that he had expended in order to prove to himself that he had fired the shots that killed the boy. He told us that his squad was safely positioned on a roof, and that a wall separated the Iraqi people from Mejia, and were thus no real threat. But they had been ordered to fire on anyone who made any "hostile" moves toward them.
Mejia concluded that "We aren't going anywhere until we can acknowledge that we violated our moral core," by killing other humans. In order to move to recovery "we must step outside of our own interests" and "restore the balance," Mejia told the audience. In his case he hopes that becoming a full participant in the peace movement, and someday returning to Iraq for humanitarian work, will help him on the road to repairing his damaged soul.
Hundreds of thousands of stories, similar to the one by Mejia, could be told by the GI's now suffering from PTSD who are being deployed over and over again in Iraq and Afghanistan today. An epidemic of suicides is now being reluctantly acknowledged by the military as these injured young people, or those who have yet to be sent to battle but fear going, cry out in their lonely darkness. Those who claim that they "support the troops" should be at the front of the line calling for an immediate end to these insane wars.