Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Despite Diplomatic Progress, Anxiety Over Syria Still High Among Veterans

Despite the fact that Syria has reportedly accepted a proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for dismantling, U.S. military action in that country remains a possibility, and that is creating palpable anxiety among America's veterans. Many former warriors I've talked to these past few weeks have expressed deep concern over the possibility of a new war in the Middle East. The angst is especially acute among veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTSD), which as I reported last fall for The Daily Beast afflicts as many as one in three veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These combat stresses are clearly exacerbated when there is talk of a new conflict. 

"We get worried and anxious about our fellow service members going into harm’s way, just like all veterans who have 'been there and done that' feel," note Paul Sullivan and Aniela Szymanski from Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that represents veterans with disabilty cases before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

In a timely and informative blog post, Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran, highly respected veterans' advocate and managing director for veterans outreach at Bermann & Moore, and Szymanski, a Marine veteran and attorney at the law firm, note that when talk of war increases, there is typically a nationwide increase in veterans seeking mental health care. 

"It’s a historical pattern," they write. "When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, demand for care increased substantially. The same happened after 9/11 and the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. We know, however, that one of the first things we should do is limit our watching television news or following the situation too closely. News coverage tends to focus on the worst-case scenarios that cause us undue anxiety about circumstances we cannot control. Focusing on our own well-being is vital to helping others."

Meanwhile, the incidents of suicide and attempted suicide among veterans, which is already a national crisis, appear to be on the rise since the Syria war drums began beating. In just the last two weeks, a veteran committed suicide with a gun inside a Houston, Texas VA hospital restroom; a veteran took his own life inside a Fort Harrison, Montana VA hospital restroom; and a veteran attempted suicide inside a Temple, Texas VA hospital restroom.

No one can say if any of these disturbingly similar incidents were related to talk of military action in Syria. But it would not be surprising to many veteran advocates, who are quick to point out that there is professional help available for all America's veterans. VA’s toll-free crisis line is 800-273-8255, and VA’s Veteran Crisis web site is http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/.

In Florida, veterans are expressing their concern about a possible military intervention in Syria through a formal resolution. Florida Veterans for Common Sense, a non-partisan, non-profit veterans’ advocacy organization, notes this morning that “complete neutralization of chemical warfare agents is highly technical, extremely difficult, and fraught with challenges; scientific research has shown that even low-level chemical warfare agent exposure is likely to result in long-term disability; and, past U.S. efforts to 'surgically' destroy chemical weapons including in the 1991 Gulf War exposed countless people including U.S. troops to varying levels of chemical warfare agents."

The Florida veterans note that any use of U.S. military force in the Syrian civil war "will almost certainly have unintended, unpredictable, detrimental consequences; may result in drawing the U.S. into a protracted, costly, complex war with ill-defined objectives or end state; and, may help anti-U.S. extremists come to power."

Vietnam veteran Gene Jones of Sarasota, Fla., said in a statement this morning that Florida veterans "feel strongly about these issues. Particularly those who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan before and know firsthand the complexities and challenges on the ground.”

Some veterans are particularly concerned about the possibility that bombing chemical weapons sites could lead widespread collateral exposure to chemical warfare agents, which we saw during the Gulf War. As I wrote here back in December, two peer-reviewed scientific research studies confirm what many veterans already believed: weather patterns carried a massive toxic chemical cloud resulting from the U.S. bombing of Iraqi chemical weapon storage facilities a long distance before these chemicals ultimately fell on U.S. troops.

This has been dubbed by some as the largest example of "friendly fire" in American history, because the so-called nerve and blister agents that dropped on American troops were supplied to Iraq by the U.S. before the Gulf War. These chemicals were then bombed by U.S. forces, which lifted them into the atmosphere. The chemicals then rained down on our own troops. The Florida veterans group is calling for international monitoring and the "careful, orderly, science-based destruction of chemical weapons wherever they exist, including Syria.”

Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and veterans' advocate who has spoken before Congress on Gulf War Illness and other issues important to veterans, notes that the bombing of chemical munitions "exposed hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to low-level sarin, mustard gas, and more - and the costs of caring for that short war's veterans have been estimated at $4 billion a year."

Hardie adds, "I've seen a lot of veterans really worried and worked up about exposing a whole new generation of troops to similar toxic hazards, because it seems our government didn't really learn these important lessons from 1991."  


  1. Jamie:

    As usual, a great post. The whole idea of us attacking Syria because Assad is a brutal, evil man who gassed his own people and, then in the next breath, saying the attack was not about "regime change" is more than idiotic, it is insane. It is the intellectual equivalent of burning down a farmer's house, killing his wife, children and livestock, setting fire to his barn and poisoning his well and then telling him we want him to keep the farm and we really don't expect him and his neighbors to come after us seeking revenge. Seriously? Is this what passes for foreign policy today? Thank God that Putin, the only grown up is this whole sordid affair, has added some sanity to the situation. In the process he has made Obama and Kerry appear small but that's a small price to pay for avoiding another tragedy.

    John Cook

  2. The Florida Veterans for Common Sense is hardly a group worth holding up as an example of Veteran opinions. As a member myself for some years (albeit most often at a distance), they appear to be about ten or twelve guys in Sarasota, Fl.

    And the 'resolution' wasn't arrived at in any meaningful democratic way. Gene said 'the board' wrote it, then sent out an email asking for comments after the fact.

    "if you do not oppose the Resolution, there is no necessity to respond. "

    Any comments received were not shared with 'the membership' so there was no meaningful opportunity for us to discuss the issue and come to a consensus.

    And, the 'no need to respond' approach allowed Gene to consider a lack of response as part of his 'silent majority.'

  3. News coverage tends to focus on the worst-case scenarios that cause us undue anxiety about circumstances we cannot control the king88.asia.