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Iraq Is Such a House of Trauma, It Doesn't Take Much to Get PTSD

Our idea of what used to be called "shell shock" tends to be limited to terrible battles, not just the daily stress of living in a war zone or surviving a couple of close calls.

Photo Credit: AFP



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I was one nightmare short of PTSD.

It didn’t take much, that’s what surprised me.  No battles.  No dead bodies.  I spent just three and a half weeks as a contractor in Iraq, when the war there was at its height, rarely leaving the security of American military bases.

For several years now, Americans have become increasingly aware that a large number of veterans have gotten post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Studies estimate that at least  1 in 5 returning vets -- possibly as many as  1 in 3 -- have it. Less notice has been given to the huge numbers of veterans who suffer some PTSD symptoms but not quite enough to be diagnosed as having the disorder.  Civilian employees of the U.S. government, contractors, and of course the inhabitants of the countries caught up in America’s wars have gotten even less notice.

The thing is: It doesn't take much to develop the symptoms of PTSD.  Our idea of what used to be called "shell shock" tends to be limited to terrible battles, not just the daily stress of living in a war zone or surviving a couple of close calls.

This is a story of how little it can take. I hardly saw a thing.


My first day in Iraq ended with an explosion.

I had just made it “in theater,” as they said, with a plane-load’s worth of contractors coming for this or that bit of danger pay. I was 32 years old, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nervous, excited, frightened policy wonk. I had executed my first will.

People would ask me, Why go? For typical reasons: Adventure. Hazard pay. I was single. No kids, no lawn to mow. I thought it would be cool. I'd get to pal around with the troops and fly in helicopters and wear body armor. I'd get to learn more about the whole war thing, which had always obsessed me, as it does so many Americans. And if I were lucky, I might even catch a glimpse of how much more idiotic the Iraq War was than I already assumed. I had never bought into it, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t eager to be there.

And then there was the work itself. My project fascinated me: to figure out what exactly was going on at a weird camp in Diyala Province where American troops were sort of detaining, sort of babysitting  an Iranian cult group that was then on our list of foreign terrorist organizations. To a lawyer and policy wonk, a man whose boyhood had been consumed by all things military, the combo was irresistible.


That first night, after we finished dinner at the DFAC, the Dining Facility, my supervisor and I drove our rental Ford Explorer through the concrete T-wall jungle of the curiously named Victory Base Complex, the giant American encampment at the edge of Baghdad International Airport. As we arrived at the shipping container that was to be my new temporary home: explosions.  Then a piercing cry from loudspeakers in the distance: INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!

The next day I'd learn that those explosions had blown up several people in front of the chow hall, right where we had exited just minutes earlier.

It was October 2007, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and General David Petraeus was the rising star of the moment with his “surge” strategy.  Mortar and rocket attacks, which had once been repeated daily occurrences, were now plummeting. Gunfire, though, still prickitypricked the night, every night, out in the "Red Zone," that wild yonder of the country beyond those T-walls. It sounded like disorganized fireworks, only without the happy spectacle.

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