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Home > Programs & Publications > HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR IN IRAQ: Garett Reppenhagen

 

HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE

WAR IN IRAQ

 

GARETT REPPENHAGEN

IRAQ VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR

 

TRANSCRIBED PANEL PRESENTATION FROM THE

DEPARTMENT FOR PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYEES,

AFL-CIO LUNCH & LEARN,

FEBRUARY 23, 2006

 

Thank you for having me here.  I was a sniper in Iraq.  About six months into my deployment in Iraq, I actually joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.  I was not yet technically a veteran, but what I saw and what I experienced in Iraq was directly conflicting with what I was told that I was there for; what my mission was supposed to be while I was there.

 

The conduct and the causes of the war have much to do with the consequences and the costs of the war.  A lot of people do not understand that this war can be described as a body parts war.  The amount of multiple fatality bombings, the suicide bombings, the vehicle bombs, the IEDs, the RPGs… they are explosive, they come out of nowhere, and they basically sever human body parts off the body.[1],[2]

 

I have friends in Walter Reed who are missing legs, missing arms, many of them with combinations of both, and these are common injuries.  These are standard now.  The actual violence of this war is unimaginable.  The stunning rapidity with which it can go from just a tense moment to an explosive situation, and then without any real enemy to retaliate against.  It is frustrating and it is stressful for the American soldier.

 

There is no front line in this war; there is no rear.  You can’t -- as in Vietnam -- go back to Saigon, leave your weapon on the base, and go out and have beer.  We are isolated on bases that are constantly under mortar attack, where we have to constantly keep up force protection to make sure our base is secure.  We are not allowed things like beer.  We are not allowed to smoke dope. We are not even allowed pornography any more.  It is a very, very structured, more isolated, more controlled environment the soldier is going into in this war.

One of the soldiers I encountered is named Jason.  He explained to me how he dreams at night.  He lost his arm from the elbow down and he lost the use of one of his legs.  He dreams every night that his arm is back.  He goes through his dream and he forgets the fact that he ever lost his arm.  Every morning when he wakes up he has to relive the tragedy of the fact that he lost his arm, because when he tries to lift himself out of bed, he lacks an arm to do so, and he crumbles back on the bed.  He relives this every morning, every time he gets up.  I don’t think people realize the tragedy of the loss.  I have a friend, Adrian, whose face was basically blown apart with shrapnel and burns.  They have reconstructed it the best they can.  Honestly, it looks gruesome.  I was speaking to him in his room at the Malone House in Walter Reed and he described to me how it used to be when he went out on dates in high school, and how he would look into the mirror at his face and if he had one pimple, or didn’t have his favorite shirt clean, he might not even go out that night.  He might stay home because he was afraid of ridicule and rejection because of his minor flaws.  Now he tells me, “Look at me, Garett.  How am I going to go out into the world now and sit in a job interview while the man across the table stares at my face, obviously looking at my wounds?  How am I going to go out on a date with a girl I have never known and expect her not to ever call me again?”

 

People don’t realize what the horrors are, and what these kids are going through on a day-to-day basis.  I have seen a lot of these guys start to overcome their disabilities, but eventually what they can’t seem to get past is the question, “Why?  Why was I disabled?  Why do I look like this?  Why do I have mental health problems?”  It comes down to basically a search for meaning.  The search for meaning in the war is fundamental, psychological protection, enabling you to do your job while you are there.  Many times in the military you develop a bubble around you of the society, and you wrap the idea that you are doing a noble cause and doing the right thing to protect your psychological ability to actually complete your missions on a day-to-day basis in Iraq.  Many of the soldiers who come back to Walter Reed injured actually hold onto this ideal for dear life because it is the last thing to keep them sane.  If you ask most of the soldiers at Walter Reed if they think they did the right thing in Iraq, they are going to say, “Yeah, damn right I did.”  Because how do you expect this person to say, “No, I’m all f----- up because of a lie.  I was there for the wrong reason and it was the wrong war and this is the price I paid.  My sacrifices were for nothing.”  It is hard to be able to face those soldiers and tell them that this is the reality.  Honestly, most of these soldiers don’t necessarily have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in its common sense.  Many have what are considered pre-existing conditions, which means that the Army or the military or Department of Defense are not responsible for those mental health injuries.  They are saying that these veterans have personality disorders, adjustment disorders, or anxiety disorders, that are not covered by Disability, because they cannot prove one incident that actually caused them psychological damage.  So they are coming home and being flushed out of the Department of Defense supposedly without any disabilities.  They are coming back trying to work. They can’t make it because they can’t deal with the banging of pots and pans or they can’t work in a restaurant when it is crowded, or they can’t work machinery because of the noise.  They are freaking out and they can plug and play, but they are not compensated.

 

Many of these soldiers’ post traumatic events were not necessarily there.  Many of these soldiers feel like they are not the victim, they are the victimizer.  They are the criminal.  They are the thief.  They are the murderer.  They are the rapist.  They are coming back trying to explain this to the shrinks and to the Mental Health Board and there is no diagnosis for that, so they are shooed away.  And they go out into society where society is like, “Thank you for a job well done.”  Most of the soldiers are thinking, “You have no idea what you are thanking me for.  You have no idea what I have done.”  Because they don’t reach that resolution, because they are not punished like society’s criminals are punished, and unlike them, they don’t come out of the legal system where they have become the victims and they feel they have paid a price.  Many times these soldiers turn it on themselves and punish themselves.  Whether they are conscious of it or not, they get led to alcoholism or drug addiction.  They end up abusing their family.  They end up drinking and driving and hurting their communities.  They end up shooting the place up and accepting the role of criminal.  Many of them end up killing themselves because they can’t find that resolution and they can’t forgive themselves.

 

When I went to my chaplain the first time I killed an innocent civilian –- the chaplain is not only a religious leader but is also the main person in charge of a military battalion’s psychological well-being –- I came to him and told him that I was frustrated and angry that I killed a civilian.  He instantly told me that I was doing it because it was the will of God, because it was for democracy.  I realized what he was doing almost instantly.  He was manufacturing meaning for me.  Personally, I feel like I’m coming home and if I go see a doctor he is trying to cure me of my anger.  Well, I have a right to be angry.  That is not a problem I have.  It is a problem that society has.  This is a political problem.  It cannot be diagnosed psychologically.  This is a problem with the reason why I was there, the meaning to why I was there.  So, these are the costs of war.  If you are in a society that can’t afford to pay those costs of war, then you can’t afford to bring your nation to war.

 

Right now, I’m fully involved in Iraq Veterans Against the War for three reasons.  It allows me to speak about what I have done in Iraq; it allows me to say that I am not that person anymore, I have changed, and I will not do it again; and it allows me to basically empower myself to try to go out there and try to help others and help the situation.  These are three very old religious ideals of confession, repentance, and atonement.  I am not very religious, but I figured out for myself that this is something that is healing me and healing my society.  Through Iraq Veterans Against the War I am able to do that.  Right now, we are currently under a poor situation where our membership is made up of infantrymen, artillery men, and military police.  Many of them have been soldiers since they were 18 and never had a real job.  We don’t have the skill sets to build the organization, to fundraise, to go out there and have an organization that is successful.  We are trying to bit-and-piece it together and we are having trouble doing it.  If you look in the flyer I handed out we are having a march, “Walkin’ to New Orleans:  Veterans’ and Survivors’ March for Peace and Justice” from March 14-19, beginning in Mobile, Alabama and marching to New Orleans.  It’s five days, 25 miles a day of Iraq veterans on the street, walking the Gulf Coast highway to bring awareness to the fact that our domestic issues are directly related to overspending on the war in Iraq.  We are having trouble flying all of our members all around the country to join this march.  I reach out to all of you to ask for your help, to help me network, help me train the veterans that are coming home, and help donate to try to get some of these members to this march.  If you can’t do that, at least reach out to me later and help me build this organization so we can be a success, so the Iraq soldiers that have fought the war can come back and have a physical presence and make a difference.


 

[1] IED:  Improvised Explosive Device or road side bomb.  Mostly these are 155 mm artillery rounds with some detonation device attached to set it off by remote or cell phone.  Insurgents hide them in trash piles, bury them and even place them inside dead animals.  When a patrol or convoy drives by they explode, damaging the vehicles and soldiers.

[2] RPG:  Rocket Propelled Grenades.  These are explosive rockets that are shoulder-fired and fairly common in Iraq.  They do very little damage to soldiers but can blow apart soldiers that are near the impact.

 

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