We examine concerns about the treatment needed by many of the 2.5 million U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It takes as much time and energy for a young person to come back and then get into a different routine as it did to prepare them and train them to go to war," says Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who has advised the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on military mental health issues. He is founder and president of the Center for Translational Medicine, which assists in testing and treatment of soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Xenakis was cited Sunday in the New York Times by columnist by Nicholas Kristof. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our look now at the difficulties faced by veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on this Veterans Day, our next guest has raised concerns about the treatment given to U.S. soldiers who suffer blast-related concussions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stephen Xenakis is a a psychiatrist, retired brigadier general, who has advised the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on military mental health issues. He’s founder and president of the Center for Translational Medicine, which assists in testing and treatment of soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was cited Sunday in the New York Times by columnist by Nicholas Kristof.
Stephen Xenakis, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what are the biggest challenges that veterans face and the issue when they come home.
STEPHEN XENAKIS: They have a number of challenges when they come back, in terms of readjusting their lives from the combat theater into the garrison life that they have, if they’re going to stay on active duty, or into civilian life. The combat tours are very, very stressful, and they really bear down a lot on them in lots of different ways. And it just takes time for them to—to kind of recalibrate and refit themselves. They’ve been under intense emotional stress during that year, for the Army for the year, for the Marines and the other services a bit less. They’ve got sleep problems. Many of them have all sorts of musculoskeletal aches and pains. They’ve been on many, many patrols. They have been exposed to IED blasts, all sorts of things. And it just takes time for them to adjust again and to kind of get into different routines.
So there’s a lots of—there are lots of different problems that they’re facing—all expectable. I mean, it’s not to blame anybody. It’s—war is tough. Combat is tough. And serving in the military, in whenever capacity, is really difficult. And so, these are things that we should, I think, anticipate and plan for. And that’s where I think we have really not looked at what kind of a campaign that we should have in terms of recognizing that it takes as much time and energy for a young person to come back and then get into a different routine as it did to prepare them and train them to go to war. And I think we need to do a lot of hard thinking, both in the Department of Defense and in the VA, of what our policies and procedures are.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, right before the 11th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the nation’s longest war, we broadcast from Colorado Springs. We looked at this case of what—the unit called "Lethal Warriors," went to Iraq, came back, went to Iraq, came back, and they couldn’t turn off the kill switch. They were killing their girlfriends, their wives, other soldiers, strangers. The murder rate at Fort Carson was something like 114 times that of surrounding Colorado Springs. You could only imagine what they were doing in Iraq, and that’s a very important point on these issues. We see, for example, in the piece in the New York Times, in which you’re quoted, the story of the decorated combat veteran, Staff Sergeant Dwight Smith—seemed like a perfect soldier, comes home, randomly runs down a 65-year-old woman named Marsha Lee and throws her into the back of the car and kills her. This, we see these horrific crimes here, but what about what they were doing there? Look at the case of Robert Bales that’s going on right now, the question of a court-martial at Fort Lewis-McChord.
STEPHEN XENAKIS: No, absolutely. I mean, you know, war is messy. And certainly these wars, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been very difficult and messy and chaotic. I mean, and that’s been—you know, for hundreds of years, people have talked about the fog of war and being in circumstances where these kinds of unthinkable acts occur. And that’s not—I mean, this is just the unfortunate human nature of these violent moments or, you know, circumstances in which, you know, good people can find themselves.
But having done that, we need to be really thinking hard of how we help them turn that off and how we help them come to terms with that, because they come back here, and they’re living with the memories of that. So they find themselves, particularly as they get older, that they have their own questions about the morality and ethics of what they’ve done. They have the memories of what’s happened. And it’s very tough on these young folks, and it causes all sorts of problems. You alluded to them in the previous commentary. You know, they’ve got legal problems they get into. These are the—of course, the extremes, where, unfortunately, people are harmed or killed. But they’ve got all sorts of other legal problems. There’s unemployment. Their families are disrupted. Their, you know, intimate relationships are been disrupted. I mean, war is tough. And it’s certainly—in my view, I think that it’s a public health problem. I mean, as you’ve heard, you know, we’ve had two-and-a-half million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve all been different ways, not all of them been on the front lines, but they were there, and they helped defend the country. A quarter, a half—I mean, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands, maybe a million of them, whose lives have really been hit hard. And they’re now trying to move on and figure out what they’re going to do—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
STEPHEN XENAKIS: —for the rest of their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Xenakis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who’s advised the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.