"We Live With Ghosts and Demons": Soldiers Who Took Part in Torture Suffer from Severe PTSD


The Department of Veterans Affairs has finally recognized that it’s not just events during combat that can cause Post-traumatic stress disorder, but any number of the horrors of war. It is a much-needed change that brings the VA up-to-date not just with the current medical research, but with the nature of modern warfare, in which violence extends far beyond the combat zone. To qualify for PTSD related benefits soldiers no longer have to prove that they went through a specific combat event. The fear “related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity” is enough.

But there is another cause of trauma that should be added to that list: the witnessing or participation in detainee abuse. Even though unrelated to combat, the torture and abuse that happened at prisons like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are a form of “hostile military activity,” which we particularly rely upon in the War on Terror. More importantly, much of that abuse violates the Geneva Conventions and are thus considered war crimes. There's more to war than what has been done to a soldier; there's also what the soldier has been ordered to do to others. Many of the thousands of soldiers who worked in these detention centers suffer profound PTSD. However, lots of Americans are deaf to the suffering of these soldiers, largely because they don’t want to admit that abuse and even torture was occurring in those prisons.

I have spoken with many soldiers who worked in military detention centers.  You don’t have to look at a pamphlet or a poster at the VA to see that they suffer from severe PTSD. Just like soldiers who served in combat, they suffer from irritability, anger, hypervigilance, a sense of doom, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. They have trouble holding down jobs, finishing school, and maintaining relationships. Their anger derails them. Their drug and alcohol problems exacerbate everything.

On September 15, 2003, twenty-seven-year-old Alyssa Peterson shot and killed herself with her service rifle while stationed at a prison in northwestern Iraq. After only two interrogation sessions, she said she could no longer withstand having to abuse the prisoners and refused her orders to continue. Other soldiers I have met also tried to kill themselves while working in those prisons—only thankfully they weren’t successful.

They didn’t see children lying in the road or hold pieces of their buddies IED blown bodies. But they did witness the horrific mental and physical breakdown, and even death of the prisoners they abused—many of whom were innocent. Instead of seeing their enemy through a sniper scope, they saw the same men, face to face for months and days. They felt the weight of their bodies, smelt their skin, saw the look in their eyes, heard the sound of their cries. As Albert Camus explained, torture is a crime that attacks both the victim and the perpetrator.

When I asked one soldier which had had a greater effect on him psychologically: working with detainees or as a gunner on convoys, he told me it was time in the prison that destroyed him. “At Abu Ghraib, watching people, over time, up close, in those deplorable conditions was too much,” one soldier told me. “You are sucked into this black hole that you can’t get out of. I never felt as depressed in my life.”

The war waged within the detention centers and the damage it does to both soldiers and detainees is far subtler than what happens in combat. It is a slower more insidious type of warfare, but it is still excruciating. The specific tactics used in those prisons like stress positions, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and solitary confinement are effective because they cause ongoing suffering seemingly without end. When done that way, and in combination, they are medically proven to cause complete psychological breakdowns, permanent physical ailments, and sometimes death. Subjecting someone to a slow insidious death is just as, if not more, traumatic than blowing them into bits. Just as the detainees were slowly broken down, so were the soldiers.

Americans’ refusal to admit the truth about our torture program adds an extra dimension to these soldiers’ pain. The only thing more frustrating than people not believing what you say is true, is when those truths are things that have destroyed your life. Ken Davis, a guard caught in some of the infamous Abu Ghraib abuse photos, explains, “A lot of soldiers, when we come back, are lost. It’s especially true for a unit accused of abuse, when you hear lies about what happened, and people deny what you saw.  And now we live with ghosts and demons that will haunt us for the rest of our lives.”

The VA’s new relaxed requirements indicate that in order to help treat PTSD we have to have a fuller understanding of the true stressors and horrors of war. Now it’s time for us to understand and accept what happened in those prisons if we are to ever help our soldiers.

There is a version of the yellow ribbon sticker that another Abu Ghraib guard has affixed to his car. Instead of “Support the Troops” it reads, “Support the Truth.” As he puts it, if you really want to support these men and women, acknowledge what they went through and what they did. Only then, can you fully acknowledge that it destroyed them, and help them heal.

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