Samstag, 21. Juli 2007

The war inside

by Anne Hull and Dana Priest
The Guardian Weekly, 06.07.07, pp. 23-25



Calloway felt naked without his M-4 rifle, his constant companion during his tour south of Baghdad with the 101st Airborne Division. The yearlong deployment claimed the lives of 50 soldiers in his brigade. Two suicides. Calloway (...) lasted nine months, until the afternoon he watched his sergeant step on a pressure-plate bomb in the road last year. The young soldier's knees buckled and he vomited into the reeds before he was ordered to help collect body parts. A few days later he was given anti-depressants and rest, but after a week he was still twitching and sleepless. In September the army decided his war was over.

Every month between 20 and 40 soldiers are evacuated from Iraq because of mental problems, according to the army.


US soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) outnumber all of the war's amputees by 43 to one in the army alone.


One night he put a DVD and watched the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (...) retching in fear as they waded ashore and faced a rain of German bullets. Limbs were severed, necks punctured, foreheads blown open, but the grunts kept charging. "See why I picked infantry," he said. "There's no other place in the world where you can have a job like that. It's a brotherhood that's deeper than your own family."

His romanticised ideals clashed with reality.

Four months out of basic training he had been sent on one of the most dangerous sectors of Baghdad.


The roads (...) were littered with bombs. A first sergeant was lost right away, and the casualties never stopped. Living in abandoned houses, Calloway went days without sleep. He went on raids at night, kicking in doors and searching houses to the sound of gunfire and screams.

He had never felt such excitement or sense of belonging. His best friend was Specialist Denver Rearick, a 23-year-old on his second tour who warned him: "Your entire body is a puzzle before your go to war. You go to war and every little piece of that puzzle gets twisted and turned. And then you are supposed to come back home again."

But the pressure and dread and exhaustion began to smother Calloway. He survived several bomb blasts. Some soldiers were sucking on aerosol cans to get high; one died accidentally. Sleep deprivation mixed with random violence scrambled Calloway.


On the day Vosbein died (he treated Calloway like a kid brother), a convoy patrol in three Humvees pulled over to check a crater in the road. As Calloway was opening his door, Vosbein was already moving towards the crater. The explosion knocked two other soldiers to the ground. Vosbein - whistling, happy Vos - was eviscerated. Parts of him were everywhere. Calloway threw up. Then: rage. He wanted to shoot the first Iraqi he saw, but his legs weren't working. He was useless to help clean up the scene. That night they confiscated his weapon. His commanders watched him closely. Eventually it was decided to ship him home.


The War Inside

Troops Are Returning From the Battlefield With Psychological Wounds, But the Mental-Health System That Serves Them Makes Healing Difficult

by Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Army Spec. Jeans Cruz helped capture Saddam Hussein. When he came home to the Bronx, important people called him a war hero and promised to help him start a new life. The mayor of New York, officials of his parents' home town in Puerto Rico, the borough president and other local dignitaries honored him with plaques and silk parade sashes. They handed him their business cards and urged him to phone.

But a "black shadow" had followed Cruz home from Iraq, he confided to an Army counselor. He was hounded by recurring images of how war really was for him: not the triumphant scene of Hussein in handcuffs, but visions of dead Iraqi children.

In public, the former Army scout stood tall for the cameras and marched in the parades. In private, he slashed his forearms to provoke the pain and adrenaline of combat. He heard voices and smelled stale blood. Soon the offers of help evaporated and he found himself estranged and alone, struggling with financial collapse and a darkening depression.

At a low point, he went to the local Department of Veterans Affairs medical center for help. One VA psychologist diagnosed Cruz with post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition was labeled "severe and chronic." In a letter supporting his request for PTSD-related disability pay, the psychologist wrote that Cruz was "in need of major help" and that he had provided "more than enough evidence" to back up his PTSD claim. His combat experiences, the letter said, "have been well documented."

None of that seemed to matter when his case reached VA disability evaluators. They turned him down flat, ruling that he deserved no compensation because his psychological problems existed before he joined the Army. They also said that Cruz had not proved he was ever in combat. "The available evidence is insufficient to confirm that you actually engaged in combat," his rejection letter stated.

Yet abundant evidence of his year in combat with the 4th Infantry Division covers his family's living-room wall. The Army Commendation Medal With Valor for "meritorious actions . . . during strategic combat operations" to capture Hussein hangs not far from the combat spurs awarded for his work with the 10th Cavalry "Eye Deep" scouts, attached to an elite unit that caught the Iraqi leader on Dec. 13, 2003, at Ad Dawr.

Veterans Affairs will spend $2.8 billion this year on mental health. But the best it could offer Cruz was group therapy at the Bronx VA medical center. Not a single session is held on the weekends or late enough at night for him to attend. At age 25, Cruz is barely keeping his life together. He supports his disabled parents and 4-year-old son and cannot afford to take time off from his job repairing boilers. The rough, dirty work, with its heat and loud noises, gives him panic attacks and flesh burns but puts $96 in his pocket each day.

Once celebrated by his government, Cruz feels defeated by its bureaucracy. He no longer has the stamina to appeal the VA decision, or to make the Army correct the sloppy errors in his medical records or amend his personnel file so it actually lists his combat awards.

"I'm pushing the mental limits as it is," Cruz said, standing outside the bullet-pocked steel door of the New York City housing project on Webster Avenue where he grew up and still lives with his family. "My experience so far is, you ask for something and they deny, deny, deny. After a while you just give up."

An Old and Growing Problem

Jeans Cruz and his contemporaries in the military were never supposed to suffer in the shadows the way veterans of the last long, controversial war did. One of the bitter legacies of Vietnam was the inadequate treatment of troops when they came back. Tens of thousands endured psychological disorders in silence, and too many ended up homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted, imprisoned or dead before the government acknowledged their conditions and in 1980 officially recognized PTSD as a medical diagnosis.

Yet nearly three decades later, the government still has not mastered the basics: how best to detect the disorder, the most effective ways to treat it, and the fairest means of compensating young men and women who served their country and returned unable to lead normal lives.

Cruz's case illustrates these broader problems at a time when the number of suffering veterans is the largest and fastest-growing in decades, and when many of them are back at home with no monitoring or care. Between 1999 and 2004, VA disability pay for PTSD among veterans jumped 150 percent, to $4.2 billion.

By this spring, the number of vets from Afghanistan and Iraq who had sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions, some 45,000 in all.

They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half; and Army Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.

They represent the first wave in what experts say is a coming deluge.

As many as one-quarter of all soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq are psychologically wounded, according to a recent American Psychological Association report. Twenty percent of the soldiers in Iraq screened positive for anxiety, depression and acute stress, an Army study found.

But numbers are only part of the problem. The Institute of Medicine reported last month that Veterans Affairs' methods for deciding compensation for PTSD and other emotional disorders had little basis in science and that the evaluation process varied greatly. And as they try to work their way through a confounding disability process, already-troubled vets enter a VA system that chronically loses records and sags with a backlog of 400,000 claims of all kinds.

The disability process has come to symbolize the bureaucratic confusion over PTSD. To qualify for compensation, troops and veterans are required to prove that they witnessed at least one traumatic event, such as the death of a fellow soldier or an attack from a roadside bomb, or IED. That standard has been used to deny thousands of claims. But many experts now say that debilitating stress can result from accumulated trauma as well as from one significant event.

In an interview, even VA's chief of mental health questioned whether the single-event standard is a valid way to measure PTSD. "One of the things I puzzle about is, what if someone hasn't been exposed to an IED but lives in dread of exposure to one for a month?" said Ira R. Katz, a psychiatrist. "According to the formal definition, they don't qualify."

The military is also battling a crisis in mental-health care. Licensed psychologists are leaving at a far faster rate than they are being replaced. Their ranks have dwindled from 450 to 350 in recent years. Many said they left because they could not handle the stress of facing such pained soldiers. Inexperienced counselors muddle through, using therapies better suited for alcoholics or marriage counseling.

A new report by the Defense Department's Mental Health Task Force says the problems are even deeper. Providers of mental-health care are "not sufficiently accessible" to service members and are inadequately trained, it says, and evidence-based treatments are not used. The task force recommends an overhaul of the military's mental-health system, according to a draft of the report.

Another report, commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in the wake of the Walter Reed outpatient scandal, found similar problems: "There is not a coordinated effort to provide the training required to identify and treat these non-visible injuries, nor adequate research in order to develop the required training and refine the treatment plans."

But the Army is unlikely to do more significant research anytime soon. "We are at war, and to do good research takes writing up grants, it takes placebo control trials, it takes control groups," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist. "I don't think that that's our primary mission."

In attempting to deal with increasing mental-health needs, the military regularly launches Web sites and promotes self-help guides for soldiers. Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, the Army's acting surgeon general, believes that doubling the number of mental-health professionals and boosting the pay of psychiatrists would help.

But there is another obstacle that those steps could not overcome. "One of my great concerns is the stigma" of mental illness, Pollock said. "That, to me, is an even bigger challenge. I think that in the Army, and in the nation, we have a long way to go." The task force found that stigma in the military remains "pervasive" and is a "significant barrier to care."

Surveys underline the problem.
Only 40 percent of the troops who screened positive for serious emotional
problems sought help, a recent Army survey found. Nearly 60 percent of soldiers
said they would not seek help for mental-health problems because they felt their
unit leaders would treat them differently; 55 percent thought they would be seen
as weak, and the same percentage believed that soldiers in their units would
have less confidence in them.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, who led the 18th Airborne Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, said countless officers keep quiet out of fear of being mislabeled. "All of us who were in command of soldiers killed or wounded in combat have emotional scars from it," said Vines, who recently retired. "No one I know has sought out care from mental-health specialists, and part of that is a lack of confidence that the system would recognize it as 'normal' in a time of war. This is a systemic problem."

Officers and senior enlisted troops, Vines added, were concerned that they would have trouble getting security clearances if they sought psychological help. They did not trust, he said, that "a faceless, nameless agency or process, that doesn't know them personally, won't penalize them for a perceived lack of mental or emotional toughness."

Overdiagnosed or Overlooked?

For the past 2 1/2 years, the counseling center at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., was a difficult place for Marines seeking help for post-traumatic stress. Navy Cmdr. Louis Valbracht, head of mental health at the center's outpatient hospital, often refused to accept counselors' views that some Marines who were drinking heavily or using drugs had PTSD, according to three counselors and another staff member who worked with him.

"Valbracht didn't believe in it. He'd say there's no such thing as PTSD," said David Roman, who was a substance abuse counselor at Twentynine Palms until he quit six months ago.

"We were all appalled," said Mary Jo Thornton, another counselor who left last year.

A third counselor estimated that perhaps half of the 3,000 Marines he has counseled in the past five years showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress. "They would change the diagnosis right in front of you, put a line through it," said the counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works there.

"I want to see my Marines being taken care of," said Roman, who is now a substance-abuse counselor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.

In an interview, Valbracht denied he ever told counselors that PTSD does not exist. But he did say "it is overused" as a diagnosis these days, just as "everyone on the East Coast now has a bipolar disorder." He said this "devalues the severity of someone who actually has PTSD," adding: "Nowadays it's like you have a hangnail. Someone comes in and says 'I have PTSD,' " and counselors want to give them that diagnosis without specific symptoms.

Valbracht, an aerospace medicine specialist, reviewed and signed off on cases at the counseling center. He said some counselors diagnosed Marines with PTSD before determining whether the symptoms persisted for 30 days, the military recommendation. Valbracht often talked to the counselors about his father, a Marine on Iwo Jima who overcame the stress of that battle and wrote an article called "They Even Laughed on Iwo." Counselors found it outdated and offensive. Valbracht said it showed the resilience of the mind.

Valbracht retired recently because, he said, he "was burned out" after working seven days a week as the only psychiatrist available to about 10,000 Marines in his 180-mile territory. "We could have used two or three more psychiatrists," he said, to ease the caseload and ensure that people were not being overlooked.

Former Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts's underlying mental condition was overlooked by the Marine Corps and successive health-care professionals for more than 30 years, as his temper and alcohol use plunged him into deeper trouble. Only in May 2005 did VA begin treating the Vietnam vet for PTSD. Three out of 10 of his compatriots from Vietnam have received diagnoses of PTSD. Half of those have been arrested at least once. Veterans groups say thousands have killed themselves.

To control his emotions now, Roberts attends group therapy once a week and swallows a handful of pills from his VA doctors: Zoloft, Neurontin, Lisinopril, Seroquel, Ambien, hydroxyzine, "enough medicine to kill a mule," he said.

Roberts desperately wants to persuade Iraq veterans not to take the route he traveled. "The Iraq guys, it's going to take them five to 10 years to become one of us," he said, seated at his kitchen table in Yonkers with his vet friends Nicky, Lenny, Frenchie, Ray and John nodding in agreement. "It's all about the forgotten vets, then and now. The guys from Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to get these guys in here with us."

"In here" can mean different things. It can mean a 1960s-style vet center such as the one where Roberts hangs out, with faded photographs of Huey helicopters and paintings of soldiers skulking through shoulder-high elephant grass. It can mean group therapy at a VA outpatient clinic during work hours, or more comprehensive treatment at a residential clinic. In a crisis, it can mean the locked-down psych ward at the local VA hospital.

"Out there," with no care at all, is a lonesome hell.

Losing a Bureaucratic Battle

Not long after Jeans Cruz returned from Iraq to Fort Hood, Tex., in 2004, his counselor, a low-ranking specialist, suggested that someone should "explore symptoms of PTSD." But there is no indication in Cruz's medical files, which he gave to The Washington Post, that anyone ever responded to that early suggestion.

When he met with counselors while he was on active duty, Cruz recalled, they would take notes about his troubled past, including that he had been treated for depression before he entered the Army. But they did not seem interested in his battlefield experiences. "I've shot kids. I've had to kill kids. Sometimes I look at my son and like, I've killed a kid his age," Cruz said. "At times we had to drop a shell into somebody's house. When you go clean up the mess, you had three, four, five, six different kids in there. You had to move their bodies."

When he tried to talk about the war, he said, his counselors "would just sit back and say, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh.' When I told them about the unit I was with and Saddam Hussein, they'd just say, 'Oh, yeah, right.' "

He occasionally saw a psychiatrist, who described him as depressed and anxious. He talked about burning himself with cigarettes and exhibited "anger from Iraq, nightmares, flashbacks," one counselor wrote in his file. "Watched friend die in Iraq. Cuts, bruises himself to relieve anger and frustration." They prescribed Zoloft and trazodone to control his depression and ease his nightmares. They gave him Ambien for sleep, which he declined for a while for fear of missing morning formation.

Counselors at Fort Hood grew concerned enough about Cruz to have him sign what is known as a Life Maintenance Agreement. It stated: "I, Jeans Cruz, agree not to harm myself or anyone else. I will first contact either a member of my direct Chain of Command . . . or immediately go to the emergency room." That was in October 2004. The next month he signed another one.

Two weeks later, Cruz reenlisted. He says the Army gave him a $10,000 bonus.

His problems worsened. Three months after he reenlisted, a counselor wrote in his medical file: "MAJOR depression." After that: "He sees himself in his dreams killing or strangling people. . . . He is worried about controlling his stress level. Stated that he is starting to drink earlier in the day." A division psychologist, noting Cruz's depression, said that he "did improve when taking medication but has degenerated since stopping medication due to long work hours."

Seven months after his reenlistment ceremony, the Army gave him an honorable discharge, asserting that he had a "personality disorder" that made him unfit for military service. This determination implied that all his psychological problems existed before his first enlistment. It also disqualified him from receiving combat-related disability pay.

There was little attempt to tie his condition to his experience in Iraq. Nor did the Army see an obvious contradiction in its handling of him: He was encouraged to reenlist even though his psychological problems had already been documented.

Cruz's records are riddled with obvious errors, including a psychological rating of "normal" on the same physical exam the Army used to discharge him for a psychological disorder. His record omits his combat spurs award and his Army Commendation Medal With Valor. These omissions contributed to the VA decision that he had not proved he had been in combat. To straighten out those errors, Cruz would have had to deal with a chaotic and contradictory paper trail and bureaucracy -- a daunting task for an expert lawyer, let alone a stressed-out young veteran.

In the Aug. 16, 2006, VA letter denying Cruz disability pay because he had not provided evidence of combat, evaluators directed him to the U.S. Armed Services Center for Research of Unit Records. But such a place no longer exists. It changed its name to the U.S. Army and Joint Services Records Research Center and moved from one Virginia suburb, Springfield, to another, Alexandria, three years ago. It has a 10-month waiting list for processing requests.

To speed things up, staff members often advise troops to write to the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland. But that agency has no records from the Iraq war, a spokeswoman said. That would send Cruz back to Fort Hood, whose soldiers have deployed to Iraq twice, leaving few staff members to hunt down records.

But Cruz has given up on the records. Life at the Daniel Webster Houses is tough enough.

After he left the Army and came home to the Bronx, he rode a bus and the subway 45 minutes after work to attend group sessions at the local VA facility. He always arrived late and left frustrated. Listening to the traumas of other veterans only made him feel worse, he said: "It made me more aggravated. I had to get up and leave." Experts say people such as Cruz need individual and occupational therapy.

Medications were easy to come by, but some made him sick. "They made me so slow I didn't want to do nothing with my son or manage my family," he said. After a few months, he stopped taking them, a dangerous step for someone so severely depressed. His drinking became heavier.

To calm himself now, he goes outside and hits a handball against the wall of the housing project. "My son's out of control. There are family problems," he said, shaking his head. "I start seeing these faces. It goes back to flashbacks, anxiety. Sometimes I've got to leave my house because I'm afraid I'm going to hit my son or somebody else."

Because of his family responsibilities, he does not want to be hospitalized. He doesn't think a residential program would work, either, for the same reason.

His needs are more basic. "Why can't I have a counselor with a phone number? I'd like someone to call."

Or some help from all those people who stuck their business cards in his palm during the glory days of his return from Iraq. "I have plaques on my wall -- but nothing more than that."

Convoys and IED

Auszug aus: 'The carnage, the blown-up bodies I saw ... Why? What was this for?'

Friday July 13, 2007, Guardian Unlimited
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian


"A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one," said Sgt. Ben Flanders, 28, a National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, who served in Balad with the 172nd Mountain Infantry for eleven months beginning in March 2004. Flanders ran convoy routes out of Camp Anaconda, about thirty miles north of Baghdad.
"So speed was your friend. And certainly in terms of IED detonation, absolutely, speed and spacing were the two things that could really determine whether or not you were going to get injured or killed or if they just completely missed, which happened."

Following an explosion or ambush, soldiers in the heavily armed escort vehicles often fired indiscriminately in a furious effort to suppress further attacks, according to three veterans. The rapid bursts from belt-fed .50-caliber machine guns and SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons, which can fire as many as 1,000 rounds per minute) left many civilians wounded or dead.

"One example I can give you, you know, we'd be cruising down the road in a convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up," said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of Grand Junction, Colorado. He served in Baquba with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, from February 2004 to February 2005. "And, you know, you've got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I've seen this, I mean, on numerous occasions where innocent people died because we're cruising down and a bomb goes off."

Several veterans said that IEDs, the preferred weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, were one of their greatest fears. Since the invasion in March 2003, IEDs have been responsible for killing more US troops--39.2 percent of the more than 3,500 killed--than any other method, according to the Brookings Institution, which monitors deaths in Iraq. This past May, IED attacks claimed ninety lives, the highest number of fatalities from roadside bombs since the beginning of the war.

"The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried," said Sergeant Flatt. "You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see them. I mean, it's just by pure luck who's getting killed and who's not. If you've been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you're even more stressed and insecure to a point where you're almost trigger-happy."


On July 30, 2004, Sergeant Flanders was riding in the tail vehicle of a convoy on a pitch-black night, traveling from Camp Anaconda south to Taji, just north of Baghdad, when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). He was about to get on the radio to warn the vehicle in front of him about the ambush when he saw his gunner unlock the turret and swivel it around in the direction of the shooting. He fired his MK-19, a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher capable of discharging up to 350 rounds per minute.

"He's just holding the trigger down and it wound up jamming, so he didn't get off as many shots maybe as he wanted," Sergeant Flanders recalled. "But I said, 'How many did you get off?' 'Cause I knew they would be asking that. He said, 'Twenty-three.' He launched twenty-three grenades....

"I remember looking out the window and I saw a little hut, a little Iraqi house with a light on.... We were going so fast and obviously your adrenaline's--you're like tunnel vision, so you can't really see what's going on, you know? And it's dark out and all that stuff. I couldn't really see where the grenades were exploding, but it had to be exploding around the house or maybe even hit the house. Who knows? Who knows? And we were the last vehicle. We can't stop."

Convoys did not slow down or attempt to brake when civilians inadvertently got in front of their vehicles, according to the veterans who described them. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty, 29, from Cañon City, Colorado, was based at the Talil Air Base in Nasiriya with the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Company for a year beginning in February 2003. She recounted one incident she investigated in January 2004 on a six-lane highway south of Nasiriya that resembled numerous incidents described by other veterans.

"It's like very barren desert, so most of the people that live there, they're nomadic or they live in just little villages and have, like, camels and goats and stuff," she recalled. "There was then a little boy--I would say he was about 10 because we didn't see the accident; we responded to it with the investigative team--a little Iraqi boy and he was crossing the highway with his, with three donkeys. A military convoy, transportation convoy driving north, hit him and the donkeys and killed all of them. When we got there, there were the dead donkeys and there was a little boy on the side of the road.

"We saw him there and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn't even stop," she said. "They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down. But, I mean, that's basically--basically, your order is that you never stop."



Auszug aus: 'The carnage, the blown-up bodies I saw ... Why? What was this for?'

Friday July 13, 2007, Guardian Unlimited
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian


Fifteen soldiers we spoke with told us the information that spurred these raids was typically gathered through human intelligence--and that it was usually incorrect. Eight said it was common for Iraqis to use American troops to settle family disputes, tribal rivalries or personal vendettas. Sgt. Jesus Bocanegra, 25, of Weslaco, Texas, was a scout in Tikrit with the Fourth Infantry Division during a yearlong tour that ended in March 2004. In late 2003, Sergeant Bocanegra raided a middle-aged man's home in Tikrit because his son had told the Army his father was an insurgent. After thoroughly searching the man's house, soldiers found nothing and later discovered that the son simply wanted money his father had buried at the farm.

After persistently acting on such false leads, Sergeant Bocanegra, who raided Iraqi homes in more than fifty operations, said soldiers began to anticipate the innocence of those they raided. "People would make jokes about it, even before we'd go into a raid, like, Oh fucking we're gonna get the wrong house," he said. "'Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house." Specialist Chrystal said that he and his platoon leader shared a joke of their own: Every time he raided a house, he would radio in and say, "This is, you know, Thirty-One Lima. Yeah, I found the weapons of mass destruction in here."

Sergeant Bruhns said he questioned the authenticity of the intelligence he received because Iraqi informants were paid by the US military for tips. On one occasion, an Iraqi tipped off Sergeant Bruhns's unit that a small Syrian resistance organization, responsible for killing a number of US troops, was holed up in a house. "They're waiting for us to show up and there will be a lot of shooting," Sergeant Bruhns recalled being told.

As the Alpha Company team leader, Sergeant Bruhns was supposed to be the first person in the door. Skeptical, he refused. "So I said, 'If you're so confident that there are a bunch of Syrian terrorists, there, why in the world are you going to send me and three guys in the front door, because chances are I'm not going to be able to squeeze the trigger before I get shot.'" Sergeant Bruhns facetiously suggested they pull an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle up to the house and shoot a missile through the front window to exterminate the enemy fighters his commanders claimed were inside. They instead diminished the aggressiveness of the raid. As Sergeant Bruhns ran security out front, his fellow soldiers smashed the windows and kicked down the doors to find "a few little kids, a woman and an old man."

In late summer 2005, in a village on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Specialist Chrystal searched a compound with two Iraqi police officers. A friendly man in his mid-30s escorted Specialist Chrystal and others in his unit around the property, where the man lived with his parents, wife and children, making jokes to lighten the mood. As they finished searching--they found nothing--a lieutenant from his company approached Specialist Chrystal: "What the hell were you doing?" he asked. "Well, we just searched the house and it's clear," Specialist Chrystal said. The lieutenant told Specialist Chrystal that his friendly guide was "one of the targets" of the raid. "Apparently he'd been dimed out by somebody as being an insurgent," Specialist Chrystal said. "For that mission, they'd only handed out the target sheets to officers, and officers aren't there with the rest of the troops." Specialist Chrystal said he felt "humiliated" because his assessment that the man posed no threat was deemed irrelevant and the man was arrested. Shortly afterward, he posted himself in a fighting vehicle for the rest of the mission.

Sgt. Larry Cannon, 27, of Salt Lake City, a Bradley gunner with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, served a yearlong tour in several cities in Iraq, including Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul, beginning in February 2004. He estimates that he searched more than a hundred homes in Tikrit and found the raids fruitless and maddening. "We would go on one raid of a house and that guy would say, 'No, it's not me, but I know where that guy is.' And...he'd take us to the next house where this target was supposedly at, and then that guy's like, 'No, it's not me. I know where he is, though.' And we'd drive around all night and go from raid to raid to raid."

"I can't really fault military intelligence," said Specialist Reppenhagen, who said he raided thirty homes in and around Baquba. "It was always a guessing game. We're in a country where we don't speak the language. We're light on interpreters. It's just impossible to really get anything. All you're going off is a pattern of what's happened before and hoping that the pattern doesn't change."

Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear Operations Center, Forty-Second Infantry Division, for one year beginning in October 2004. He said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources to investigate tips before acting on them. "We're not police," he said. "We don't go around like detectives and ask questions. We kick down doors, we go in, we grab people."


Sergeant Bruhns said he uncovered illegal material about 10 percent of the time, an estimate echoed by other veterans. "We did find small materials for IEDs, like maybe a small piece of the wire, the detonating cord," said Sergeant Cannon. "We never found real bombs in the houses." In the thousand or so raids he conducted during his time in Iraq, Sergeant Westphal said, he came into contact with only four "hard-core insurgents."


Auszug aus: 'The carnage, the blown-up bodies I saw ... Why? What was this for?'

Friday July 13, 2007, Guardian Unlimited
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian


"So we get started on this day, this one in particular," recalled Spc. Philip Chrystal, 23, of Reno, who said he raided between twenty and thirty Iraqi homes during an eleven-month tour in Kirkuk and Hawija that ended in October 2005, serving with the Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade.

"It starts with the psy-ops vehicles out there, you know, with the big speakers playing a message in Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish or whatever they happen to be, saying, basically, saying, Put your weapons, if you have them, next to the front door in your house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we had Apaches flying over for security, if they're needed, and it's also a good show of force. And we're running around, and they--we'd done a few houses by this point, and I was with my platoon leader, my squad leader and maybe a couple other people.

"And we were approaching this one house," he said. "In this farming area, they're, like, built up into little courtyards. So they have, like, the main house, common area. They have, like, a kitchen and then they have a storage shed-type deal. And we're approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was barking ferociously, 'cause it's doing its job. And my squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots it. And he didn't--mother­fucker--he shot it and it went in the jaw and exited out. So I see this dog--I'm a huge animal lover; I love animals--and this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he's running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, What the hell is going on? The family is sitting right there, with three little children and a mom and a dad, horrified. And I'm at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I'm, like, What the fuck are you doing? And so the dog's yelping. It's crying out without a jaw. And I'm looking at the family, and they're just, you know, dead scared. And so I told them, I was like, Fucking shoot it, you know? At least kill it, because that can't be fixed....

"And--I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but--and I had tears then, too--and I'm looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out and I gave them twenty bucks, because that's what I had. And, you know, I had him give it to them and told them that I'm so sorry that asshole did that.

"Was a report ever filed about it?" he asked. "Was anything ever done? Any punishment ever dished out? No, absolutely not."

According to interviews with twenty-four veterans who participated in such raids, they are a relentless reality for Iraqis under occupation. The American forces, stymied by poor intelligence, invade neighborhoods where insurgents operate, bursting into homes in the hope of surprising fighters or finding weapons. But such catches, they said, are rare. Far more common were stories in which soldiers assaulted a home, destroyed property in their futile search and left terrorized civilians struggling to repair the damage and begin the long torment of trying to find family members who were hauled away as suspects.

Once they were in front of the home, troops, some wearing Kevlar helmets and flak vests with grenade launchers mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, according to Sergeant Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:

"You run in. And if there's lights, you turn them on--if the lights are working. If not, you've got flashlights.... You leave one rifle team outside while one rifle team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the other rifle team leader that's outside.

"You go up the stairs. You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms and grab the family, and you'll group them all together. Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there's no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us.

"You get the interpreter and you get the man of the home, and you have him at gunpoint, and you'll ask the interpreter to ask him: 'Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all--anything--anything in here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved in insurgent activity or anti-coalition forces activity?'

"Normally they'll say no, because that's normally the truth," Sergeant Bruhns said. "So what you'll do is you'll take his sofa cushions and you'll dump them. If he has a couch, you'll turn the couch upside down. You'll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you'll throw everything on the floor, and you'll take his drawers and you'll dump them.... You'll open up his closet and you'll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane just hit it.

"And if you find something, then you'll detain him. If not, you'll say, 'Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.' So you've just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes."

Each raid, or "cordon and search" operation, as they are sometimes called, involved five to twenty homes, he said. Following a spate of attacks on soldiers in a particular area, commanders would normally order infantrymen on raids to look for weapons caches, ammunition or materials for making IEDs. Each Iraqi family was allowed to keep one AK-47 at home, but according to Bruhns, those found with extra weapons were arrested and detained and the operation classified a "success," even if it was clear that no one in the home was an insurgent.

Before a raid, according to descriptions by several veterans, soldiers typically "quarantined" the area by barring anyone from coming in or leaving. In pre-raid briefings, Sergeant Bruhns said, military commanders often told their troops the neighborhood they were ordered to raid was "a hostile area with a high level of insurgency" and that it had been taken over by former Baathists or Al Qaeda terrorists.

"So you have all these troops, and they're all wound up," said Sergeant Bruhns. "And a lot of these troops think once they kick down the door there's going to be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons to start shooting at them."

Sgt Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, estimates he raided "thousands" of homes in Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul. He served with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, for one year beginning in February 2004. "We scared the living Jesus out of them every time we went through every house," he said.

'The carnage, the blown-up bodies I saw ... Why? What was this for?

Friday July 13, 2007, Guardian Unlimited
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian

Over the past several months The Nation interviewed fifty combat veterans of the Iraq War from around the United States in an effort to investigate the effects of the four-year-old occupation on average Iraqi civilians. These combat veterans, some of whom bear deep emotional and physical scars, and many of whom have come to oppose the occupation, gave vivid, on-the-record accounts. They described a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts.

Dozens of those interviewed witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as common and said they often go unreported--and almost always go unpunished.


Court cases, such as the ones surrounding the massacre in Haditha and the rape and murder of a 14-year-old in Mah­mudiya, and news stories in the Washington Post, Time, the London Independent and elsewhere based on Iraqi accounts have begun to hint at the wide extent of the attacks on civilians.


Veterans said the culture of this counterinsurgency war, in which most Iraqi civilians were assumed to be hostile, made it difficult for soldiers to sympathize with their victims--at least until they returned home and had a chance to reflect.


Fighting in densely populated urban areas has led to the indiscriminate use of force and the deaths at the hands of occupation troops of thousands of innocents.


Many of these veterans returned home deeply disturbed by the disparity between the reality of the war and the way it is portrayed by the US government and American media. The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise, one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal colonial wars and occupations, from the French occupation of Algeria to the American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

"I'll tell you the point where I really turned," said Spc. Michael Harmon, 24, a medic from Brooklyn. He served a thirteen-month tour beginning in April 2003 with the 167th Armor Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, in Al-Rashidiya, a small town near Baghdad. "I go out to the scene and [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little 2-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs, and I look and she has a bullet through her leg.... An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got hit. And this baby looked at me, wasn't crying, wasn't anything, it just looked at me like--I know she couldn't speak. It might sound crazy, but she was like asking me why. You know, Why do I have a bullet in my leg?... I was just like, This is--this is it. This is ridiculous."


Only 55 percent of soldiers and 40 percent of marines said they would report a unit member who had killed or injured "an innocent noncombatant."


These attitudes reflect the limited contact occupation troops said they had with Iraqis. They rarely saw their enemy. They lived bottled up in heavily fortified compounds that often came under mortar attack. They only ventured outside their compounds ready for combat. The mounting frustration of fighting an elusive enemy and the devastating effect of roadside bombs, with their steady toll of American dead and wounded, led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis.

Veterans described reckless firing once they left their compounds. Some shot holes into cans of gasoline being sold along the roadside and then tossed grenades into the pools of gas to set them ablaze. Others opened fire on children. These shootings often enraged Iraqi witnesses.
"The frustration that resulted from our inability to get back at those who were attacking us led to tactics that seemed designed simply to punish the local population that was supporting them," Sergeant Mejía said.


"Take a picture of me and this motherfucker," a soldier who had been in Sergeant Mejía's squad said as he put his arm around the corpse. Sergeant Mejía recalls that the shroud covering the body fell away, revealing that the young man was wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole in his chest.

"Damn, they really fucked you up, didn't they?" the soldier laughed.