HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR IN IRAQ
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 wasnít exactly sure what I should speak about. Not because I donít 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, Iíd 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
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 canít tell
me when or if they will go away. They canít tell me what I can do to help a
distressed soldier fall asleep. They also donít tell you how to get over your
own exhaustion, because when the person next to you isnít sleeping, you donít
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 canít 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 canít tell you how to keep it together when a loved one
tells you theyíre dead inside, and they wonít blame you if you want to leave and
find someone else. A book canít tell you how to keep a loved one from drinking
themselves to sleep every night after they come home. They canít 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
doesnít 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, ďYou 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 donít 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.Ē
Itís basically a matter of
learning as you go, trying to figure out what works and what doesnít, 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 donít 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 wasnít
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 didnít 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 didnít come out to suction
the waste out of the portable toilets. When portable toilets arenít 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 personís health. The soldier who told me about
this said they wouldnít eat sometimes, only because they didnít 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. Itís disgusting to hear about, but
probably even worse to have lived through it.
People donít 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 theyíve 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 wouldnít 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 itís really worth it before
they support sending our loved ones off to war. Thank you for taking the time
to listen and understand.