MILITARY FAMILIES SPEAK OUT (MFSO)
TRANSCRIBED PANEL PRESENTATION FROM THE
DEPARTMENT FOR PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYEES,
AFL-CIO LUNCH & LEARN,
FEBRUARY 23, 2006
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Elizabeth Frederick and I am a member of Military Families Speak Out, an organization of over 3,000 families nationwide who have loved ones who are serving, have served, or are in the process of deploying to Iraq and who are opposed to the war in Iraq.
When I heard about this event, I wasn’t exactly sure what I should speak about. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have too much to say and never enough time to say it all. With that in mind, I want to break up my comments into two parts. First, I would like to talk about the mental affects of war, both on the soldier and their family members. Second, I’d like to discuss some of the less obvious physical effects of war. Effects that may not be as visible as an amputated limb, but that are very real and problematic for those forced to live with them.
Discussing the mental effects of war is difficult because it hits very close to home. I am not an expert in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have gathered knowledge by reading books, talking to other family members, reading materials provided by the VA, and generally anything else I could get my hands on. Even with this information and these guides, I still feel very uninformed and helpless. You see, the guides may be able to inform me that sleeping disorders are common, but they can’t tell me when or if they will go away. They can’t tell me what I can do to help a distressed soldier fall asleep. They also don’t tell you how to get over your own exhaustion, because when the person next to you isn’t sleeping, you don’t sleep either. Their inability to sleep through the night affects their partner as well, resulting in two people becoming restless and exhausted.
The guides also can’t tell you how to react when a soldier wakes his loved one up in the middle of the night to tell her that even though he came back, the man she met and fell in love with died in Iraq. The VA can’t tell you how to keep it together when a loved one tells you they’re dead inside, and they won’t blame you if you want to leave and find someone else. A book can’t tell you how to keep a loved one from drinking themselves to sleep every night after they come home. They can’t tell you how to stay calm when you learn a soldier who seems fine on the outside, is seriously considering taking his own life.
Some may ask why the soldier doesn’t stay and get help from the military once they get back. I would answer that using the words of one soldier I met who said, “You live a violent year in a hellish place, and when you get back, you feel such animosity for the people who put you there that you don’t want to stay there and ask for their help. You want to get away from the people you hate and go home to the people you love.”
It’s basically a matter of learning as you go, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and suppressing the rage you feel because this war has thrown the two of you into this situation. The anger that this war has taken a healthy, happy soldier and returned to you a broken shell of a human being who may get better with time, or who may not. You just have to wait and see and hope for the best. These are the mental effects of war, and they don’t just affect the soldier. True, they are the ones with the nightmares and flashbacks. But their struggle affects their families, as well. The problems are shared by everyone in the home, whether they like it or not.
The physical effects of war are just as challenging to deal with as the mental ones. When I say physical effects, I am referring to something much broader than flag-draped coffins and soldiers in rehab at Walter Reed. Those are images people are used to seeing and hearing about, and as heart breaking as each story is, there is an even larger picture people are unaware of.
Summerall is the name of a base in Northern Iraq, near Tikrit. About 1 or 2 km outside of Summerall is an old chemical plant of some sort. I learned about this place because a soldier I know conducted missions there. The command thought that it would be a perfect hiding place, because no one would think to look for them in chemical waste. They would spend roughly ten hours, watching roads, looking for insurgents, all while sitting on top of this waste and breathing it in. The soldier told me you could smell it even as you approached the place, and that after just a few minutes the fumes would start to make you dizzy. Apparently the command wasn’t too concerned about the effects this place might have on their health, because they were sent back there on numerous occasions.
When they were preparing to come home, they were given a questionnaire, and asked if they had been exposed to any chemicals. Despite answering these questions, and informing the medics they suspected they had repeatedly been exposed, these men were not given further testing. They were given a basic physical, an HIV test, and sent home. Even after they had filled out the questionnaire and told the military they had been exposed to God knows what kinds of chemical waste, no further tests were given, and none are scheduled. Aside from a handshake and a concerned look from the medics, they were sent on their way. For these soldiers, they may not know for another five, ten, or twenty years if what they were exposed to in Iraq will have any lasting health effects.
There are other stories as well, about soldiers who didn’t shower for weeks because the contractor in charge of bringing water to the base, KBR, thought making a convoy out to the area was too dangerous. That same contractor often didn’t come out to suction the waste out of the portable toilets. When portable toilets aren’t suctioned out, they start to overflow. Overflowing toilets in the summer, where temperatures soar well over 110 degrees, are not healthy. Aside from being disgusting, is hazardous to a person’s health. The soldier who told me about this said they wouldn’t eat sometimes, only because they didn’t want to have to relieve themselves in those toilets.
If soldiers called their command to tell them about the problem, the most the command would do was call KBR, who said they were working on the problem. These are the types of things our soldiers were subjected to: lack of showers, lack of clean water, overflowing toilets, and the list goes on. It’s disgusting to hear about, but probably even worse to have lived through it.
People don’t know about these things, and they need to become aware of them. They need to fully understand the costs of war, both mental and physical, before deciding to start a conflict. They need to imagine themselves up late at night with a loved one, trying to convince that person that their life has meaning. They need to imagine themselves wondering if they may develop cancer ten years from now, because they’ve been exposed to a hazardous substance. They need to think of these things, as ugly and unattractive as they may be, because these are the true mental and physical costs of war. They need to decide if they are willing to bear those costs themselves, or simply send another person off to suffer on their behalf. If people weighed these costs more carefully, and fully understood them, perhaps we wouldn’t find ourselves engaged in wars of choice. Perhaps our veterans would receive better care when they returned home. People need to weigh the true costs of war and decide if it’s really worth it before they support sending our loved ones off to war. Thank you for taking the time to listen and understand.