Volunteer Soldiers Devastated by Iraq Weren't "Asking for It"

"They volunteered, didn't they?"

As the war in Iraq has gone from wrong to worse, that question, often delivered as a statement, has become the fallback stance of folks who are attempting to silence the voices of those of us who actually have loved ones in uniform, or who died while wearing it. I love my country dearly, but sometimes it's difficult to retain a feeling of love for my countrymen who have said, "They volunteered, didn't they?" in an effort to shut up the growing numbers of military and Gold Star families who are speaking out against this war.

More often than not, the phrase falls from the mouths of people who will send our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, spouses and children to war, but blanch or literally roll their eyes at the suggestion that they send their own, or -- heavens! -- go themselves.

Less than one percent of Americans are in the Armed Forces. Over 1.3 million US troops have served in Iraq, including upwards of 450,000 National Guard and Reservists, surpassing by hundreds of thousands the number of Guard and Reservists that have fought in any other foreign war in this nation's history. In the early years of the occupation, my husband was stationed at LSA Anaconda with the Army National Guard's 81st brigade, so I speak from that experience, my conversations with hundreds of military families, soldiers, and Iraq War veterans, and a ridiculous amount of research.

I had to become something of a layman's expert on the National Guard in order to navigate the stultifying military bureaucracy, advocate for our soldiers and veterans, and speak out against the war.

What citizen soldiers signed up for:

What the television ad promised: "One weekend a month, two weeks a year. Earn money for college and protect your local community." That's what citizen soldiers signed up for. While they were certainly aware of the dual mission, they believed the recruiters who told them that they'd never get deployed; that the only way they'd see combat is "if World War III broke out." Since 2001, "four out of five guardsmen have been sent overseas in the largest deployment of the National Guard since World War II." (Stateline.org, January 12, 2007) Over 400 Army National Guard soldiers have died in Iraq, more than quadruple the amount that died in the entire Vietnam War.

For more than half a century, the National Guard's policy regarding mobilization was that Guardsmen would be required to serve no more than one year cumulative on active duty (with no more than six months overseas) for each five years of regular drill. After September 11, 2001, the possible mobilization time was increased to 18 months (with no more than one year overseas). Then it was increased again, to 24 months. That policy was effectively abandoned by the Pentagon in January of 2007 because it's the only way they can continue to redeploy Iraq War veterans/Reservists. The cumulative number of days Guard soldiers called to duty [rose] from 12.7 million in 2001 to 68.3 million in 2005, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The constant changes to policy, time and terms of deployment, extensions, stop-loss, etc, are, in fact, not what they signed up for when they took an oath to protect the Constitution from "threats both foreign and domestic."

The Army National Guard's charter is the Constitution of the United States: Title 10 U.S.C. 12301 (a) provides that, in time of war or national emergency declared by the Congress, reserve components can be called to active duty.

1) Article I, Section 8; Clause 15: The Congress shall have Power ... To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.

The men and women who volunteered to serve their communities and country did so with the contractual guarantee that they would not be sent into the killing fields unless the aforementioned conditions were met. "There is a contract between the soldiers and their civilian leaders that they will be sent into harm's way under lawful condictions. The Bush administration has broken that contract. Citizens are the soldiers only protection," said Michael McPherson, Gulf War I veteran, and father of an Iraq War veteran. Promises, promises:

Dick Cheney said our soldiers would be greeted as liberators, and rose petals strewn in their path. Looking back, I think we can all agree: That went badly. The President told the troops they had his support, and they would have everything they needed, on the ground and after the war, including body armor, equipment, etc.

The bulk of the troops on the ground in Iraq are Army, Army National Guard, and Reserves, and yet, they are grossly under funded, receiving approximately 17% of the DOD budget, with just 2-3% trickling to the Guard/Reserve. The severity of equipment shortages were brought to light by the Guard and Reservists in Iraq, and thousands of calls made to Congress by National Guardsmen and their families, pleading for body armor, fully up armored tanks and HMMV's and other equipment. After four years, the problem has yet to be fully corrected.

Instead, they keep sending our soldiers, while failing miserably at keeping their promise to take care of them when they come home. After having served some of the longest tours in Iraq, while their families waited, worried, and often suffered financial shortfalls or problems with receiving pay and benefits, our citizen soldiers come home, and bring the war with them. I wrote about this in "Broken by this War," and want to expand on the following:


The tab so far: more than 3,000 dead U.S. troops, tens of thousands of wounded, over half a million Iraqi casualties, roughly 250,000 American servicemen and women struggling with PTSD, and almost 60,000 military marriages that have been broken by this war. Including mine.
Broken, which includes domestic abuse, spousal murder, suicide, internet porn addiction, divorce, separation, and estrangement. What does it say when a nation that prides itself on supporting the troops, shared sacrifice, and a commitment to children and family values continues to pass policies that directly and indirectly undercut them all?

Fault lines on the home front:

When Iraq was invaded in 2003, there were a combined total of almost 670,000 personnel in the Guard and Reserves, more than active duty Army, which had 499,301 soldiers. (DOD [309A] Sept. 30, 2003) According to the Department of Defense, approximately 51% of Army soldiers were married, as compared to nearly 60% of Guard and Reservists.

The Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center reveals that in the first years of the war, the annual divorce rate among active-duty Army officers and enlisted personnel nearly doubled, from 5,658 to 10,477. The increase is about 5,000 Army marriages per year, times four years, which totals 20,000 official divorces. That does not include active-duty Navy and Marines.

If the Army divorce rate is applied to Guard/Reserve, (the number is probably higher because of increased PTSD rates , less preparation/support/care before, during, and after deployment, financial burdens, etc.), given that the total force strength of citizen soldiers is almost one-third higher than active-duty Army, and almost 60% of Guard and Reservists are married (when averaged between branches) then, holding everything else equal, the annual increase in divorces among citizen soldiers would be roughly 8,000, times four years, equaling 32,000.

A study conducted in 1996 on the impact of long-term overseas deployments of Guard and Reserve troops found that "Reservists were more vulnerable than regular service soldiers...for psychiatric breakdown. [And] being a Reservist, having low enlisted rank, and belonging to a support unit increased the risk for psychiatric breakdown ... Many such personnel entertained little expectation that they would ever be called to active duty."

Just eleven months after returning from Iraq, 46% of one Washington State Reserve Combat Engineer Company reported mental health problems, more than double the rates for regular enlisted.

None of the estimates reflect Iraq war veterans whose military contracts expired prior to filing or finalization of divorce papers. Nor do they include the hundreds of divorces pending in the system, and several thousand other couples who are separated, but have not filed any paperwork, according to anecdotal reports, informal surveys, and conversations with dozens of military personnel and health care professionals. We aren't official statistics, but things sure feel broken.

As the war drags on, and soldiers are sent for their 3rd, 4th, and now 5th deployments, with the attendant risks and stressors involved, the fault lines that this war has created in too many -- not all -- of families will become chasms. Based on trends from previous wars, case studies, and information from marriage counselors, military families and soldiers, the rates of divorce and separation are rising, and available figures are "just the tip of the iceberg."

But divorce and separation aren't the only things that break a marriage and shred the fabric of the family. In 2005, according to DoD figures, there were 16,400 cases of domestic violence reported, with 9,450 of them substantiated. That's 14 cases for every 1,000 couples, compared with 3 per 1,000 among civilians. Domestic violence advocates contend that the figures are even higher than the DOD says. If military spouses live off-post -- as do many active duty personnel, and virtually 100 percent of Guard/Reserves -- and call the local police or shelter for asistance, they typically don't show up in the military's statistics.

And consider that many soldiers spent all or part of 2004/2005 deployed and thus physically separated from their spouses. In every war, domestic abuse rates spike when troops return, up to and including murder.

Over the past several years, returning soldiers have turned their fists and guns on their families, and a number of married veterans have committed suicide. Army Special Forces soldier Bill Howell, back three weeks from Iraq, beat his wife, and then committed suicide. A recently returned soldier at Fort Lewis, Washington, "turned himself in ... saying he had committed a homicide," according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Pierce County sheriff's department later found the soldier's 28-year-old wife dead "apparently from homicidal violence."

Sergeant Matthew Denni served in Iraq with the 671st Engineer Army Reserve Company. During his trial, it was determined that PTSD contributed to him murdering his wife and stuffing her corpse in a footlocker.

Murder, suicide, domestic violence, abuse, internet porn addictions are all casualties of war, collateral damage that destroys marriages and families, but they won't be found on the DOD's list of divorces. So when I said that "almost 60,000 military marriages that have been broken by this war. Including mine," I was being kind with the numbers. Yet some of the responses I got were hateful, intentionally hurtful, small-hearted and mean-spirited comments about "bad, selfish wives" and "stupid, irresponsible soldiers," demonizing those of us who have suffered and sacrificed so much. Enough.

Veterans and their families are already struggling, with too few resources and support, to try and heal. And yes, "they volunteered," but not for this, America. Not for this.
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