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How Can We Stop the Epidemic of Killing Women and Children By Returning Soldiers?

No society that sends its men abroad for war can expect them to come home and be at peace, as returning Iraqi vets are proving in alarming numbers.
 
 
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Wake up, America. The boys are coming home, and they're not the boys who went away.

On New Year's Day, the New York Times welcomed the advent of 2009 by reporting that, since returning from Iraq, nine members of the Fort Carson, Colorado, Fourth Brigade Combat team had been charged with homicide. Five of the murders they were responsible for took place in 2008 when, in addition, "charges of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault" at the base rose sharply. Some of the murder victims were chosen at random; four were fellow soldiers -- all men. Three were wives or girlfriends.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Men sent to Iraq or Afghanistan for two, three, or four tours of duty return to wives who find them "changed" and children they barely know. Tens of thousands return to inadequate, underfunded veterans' services with appalling physical injuries, crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suck-it-up sergeants who hold to the belief that no good soldier seeks help. That, by the way, is a mighty convenient belief for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, which have been notoriously slow to offer much of that help.

Recently Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas, a state with 15 major military bases, noted that as many as one in five U.S. veterans is expected to suffer from at least one "invisible wound" of war, if not a combination of them, "including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury." Left untreated, such wounds can become very visible: witness, for example, the recent wave of suicides that have swept through the military, at least 128 in 2008, and 24 in January 2009 alone.

To judge by past wars, a lot of returning veterans will do themselves a lot of damage drinking and drugging. Many will wind up in prison for drug use or criminal offenses that might have been minor if the offenders hadn't been carrying guns they learned to rely on in the service. And a shocking number of those veterans will bring the violence of war home to their wives and children.

That's no accident. The U.S. military is a macho club, proud of its long tradition of misogyny, and not about to give it up. One decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, who credited the army with teaching him to repress his emotions, described his basic training as "long, exhausting marches" and "sound-offs [that] revolved around killing and mutilating the enemy or violent sex with women." (The two themes easily merge.) That veteran was Timothy McVeigh, the unrepentant Oklahoma City bomber, who must have known that blowing up a government office building during business hours was sure to kill a whole lot of women.

Even in the best of times, the incidence of violence against women is much higher in the military than among civilians. After war, it's naturally worse -- as with those combat team members at Fort Carson. In 2005, one of them, Pfc. Stephen Sherwood, returned from Iraq and fatally shot his wife, then himself. In September 2008, Pvt. John Needham, who received a medical discharge after a failed suicide attempt, beat his girlfriend to death. In October 2008, Spc. Robert H. Marko raped and murdered Judilianna Lawrence, a developmentally disabled teenager he met online.

These murders of wives and girlfriends -- crimes the Bureau of Justice Statistics labels "intimate homicides" -- were hardly the first. In fact, the first veterans of George Bush's wars returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from Afghanistan in 2002.

On June 11, 2002, Sgt. First Class Rigoberto Nieves fatally shot his wife Teresa and then himself in their bedroom. On June 29th, Sgt. William Wright strangled his wife Jennifer and buried her body in the woods. On July 9th, Sgt. Ramon Griffin stabbed his estranged wife Marilyn 50 times or more and set her house on fire. On July 19th, Sgt. First Class Brandon Floyd of Delta Force, the antiterrorism unit of the Special Forces, shot his wife Andrea and then killed himself. At least three of the murdered wives had been seeking separation or divorce.

 
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