- Ann Jones
writer and photographer. Her new book is called They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story. Her previous books include Women Who Kill, Next Time She’ll Be Dead, Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. She has reported on the impact of war in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and embedded with American forces in Afghanistan.
Today marks Veterans Day, the federal holiday honoring U.S. men and women who have fought in the armed forces. Veterans continue to face extremely high levels of unemployment, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress and homelessness. Since 2000, nearly 6,000 servicemembers have experienced traumatic amputations from injuries caused by improvised explosive devices and other war-related dangers. Nearly one million active servicemembers have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder since 2000; nearly half of those have been diagnosed with two or more. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Last year, more U.S. military personnel died by their own hands than the hands of others. On any given night, nearly 63,000 veterans are homeless. Many suffer chronic debilitating mental health problems. We are joined by longtime writer and photographer Ann Jones, author of the new book, “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story.”
AMY GOODMAN: Today marks Veterans Day, the federal holiday honoring U.S. men and women who’ve fought in the armed forces. President Obama used his weekly address to emphasize the obligations Americans and their government have to veterans.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As more than a million of our troops return to civilian life, we’re going to have to work even harder, because the skill, dedication and courage of our troops is unmatched. And when they come home, we all benefit from their efforts to build a stronger America and a brighter future for our kids. So to all our veterans, on behalf of our entire nation, thank you for everything you’ve done and will continue to do for our country. As your commander-in-chief, I’m proud of your service and grateful for your sacrifice. And as long as I’m your president, I will make it my mission to make sure that America has your back, not just on one day or one weekend, but 365 days a year. Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Although President Obama stressed the importance of supporting returning troops in his speech, veterans continue to face extremely high levels of unemployment, of traumatic brain injury, PTSD, rates of suicide, homelessness. Since 2000, nearly 6,000 servicemembers have experienced traumatic amputations because of improvised explosive devices and other war-related dangers. Nearly a million active servicemembers have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder since 2000—nearly half of those who have been diagnosed with two or more. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Last year, more U.S. military personnel died by their own hands than the hands of others. On any given night, nearly 63,000 veterans are homeless. Many suffer chronic debilitating mental health problems.
For the rest of the hour, we’re joined by longtime writer and photographer Ann Jones. Her new book is They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story.
Ann Jones, welcome to Democracy Now!
ANN JONES: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us that story.
ANN JONES: Well, it’s the—the story that’s been missing is the story of what happens to the soldiers who are wounded or killed in combat. And we hear a great deal about the wonderful medical system, military medical system, that’s in place to help them and to save their lives. What we don’t hear, and the story that I tracked, is what these injuries do to the medical care workers who are trying to save the lives, because none of them, none of the doctors, nurses or other medical personnel I met in the hospitals in Afghanistan or at Landstuhl in Germany or at Walter Reed had ever seen such catastrophic wounds before. They had never encountered this kind of damage, even though they’re all experienced military medical workers. So, yes, they’re saving lives and putting soldiers back together as best they can, but the question they’re all asking themselves is: Are these veterans going to be glad to be alive when they get home?
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your first chapter, “Secrets: The Dead.”
ANN JONES: Yes. You know, for so long, 18 years, Americans were not allowed to see the dead being brought home, thanks to an order of Dick Cheney when he was under secretary of state in the first Bush Sr. administration. And that—that rule was reversed in 2009. So, for the first time, some journalists could be present, with the permission of the families of the dead, to witness the dead coming home. But by that time, Americans scarcely seemed to be interested. It’s not something we’re used to seeing, and apparently now not something that we want to see.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the examples you use, the stories of the soldiers who opened up to you.
ANN JONES: Well, of course, in Afghanistan, most of the soldiers I saw were unconscious, intubated, undergoing surgery after surgery to stabilize them and get them onto the next level of care.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get this access?
ANN JONES: I had to embed with the military and have a minder with me and was allowed to watch that. And by the time the soldiers had returned to the States, I wasn’t allowed to speak to them in the hospitals. I got my information from public affairs officers and medical personnel. So, where I really got the chance to talk to these soldiers was on their bases before they were injured and in their homes after they came back.
The soldiers and their families told me terrible stories of veterans who have lain at home in their childhood bed for years after returning from these wars, and others who returned to families—and there’s story after story like this—of loving families who try desperately to get help for their soldiers because they fear they’re suicidal, and indeed they are. But the VA is already—was already so overburdened with veterans from our past wars, when these veterans started coming home, that they’ve been playing catch-up ever since and in fact never have caught up. So, veterans who need immediate help are turned away from the VA, and suicide is frequently the result.
AMY GOODMAN: These suicide numbers are astounding. I mean, I think people just have to close their minds; they can’t comprehend: 22 veterans or soldiers a day in the United States take their lives?
ANN JONES: And those are soldiers who are still in the military. Those who have already left the military are not counted. And there’s a lot of indication that they may be committing suicide at even greater rates. But the—to me, the most shocking part of this is that many of those who kill themselves are receiving treatment at the VA, but the treatment they’re receiving is Big Pharma drugs, the opioid painkillers. They’re prescribed not for psychological problems, but for simple body pain. And they’re highly addictive, and they’re very deeply implicated in soldier suicides. I tell the story of one Texas soldier—
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us that story.
ANN JONES: —who came back deeply troubled by the war and was about to resign from the military. He was getting some treatment at the VA, when he played in a football game with some pals and broke a finger. And he was prescribed heavy-duty opioid narcotics. And as his mother said afterwards, she went to the doctor and said, “You prescribed that for a broken finger?” Because very shortly he was addicted, and not long afterwards, he killed himself. And his mother traces it directly to the onset of those drugs, on top of the experiences he brought home from the wars.
AMY GOODMAN: You are the daughter of a veteran. Talk about his experience and how that influenced you in this book, They Were Soldiers, as well as your previous work.
ANN JONES: Well, my father was a very highly decorated veteran of World War I. And he came home with wounds and certainly all the demons, which never left his nightmares. You know, the whole—they attended him through his whole life. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand what was going on?
ANN JONES: I did. And I was also often the target of what was going on. My father was, outwardly, a very successful businessman, a good citizen, well beloved in our small community, but at home the demons emerged. So, it left me with a strong distrust of the statistics we normally get from the Pentagon to say that the deep disturbance of veterans happens to only a small percentage and that the vast majority of our soldiers come home just fine. To everyone in our community, my father looked just fine. And he had the demons and visited them on his family, as so many veterans do, until the day he died. And he was 80 years old at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say “the demons,” you mean what?
ANN JONES: I mean his nightmares, his sense of guilt, his sense of helplessness, his sense of frustration that the country continued to go to war. And often this emerged as violence against—against family members.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, we spoke to Aaron Hughes on Democracy Now! about problems military members face. He’s a veteran.
AARON HUGHES: Every day in this country 18 veterans are committing suicide. Seventeen percent of the individuals that are in combat in Afghanistan, my brothers and sisters, are on psychotropic medication. Twenty to 50 percent of the individuals that are getting deployed to Afghanistan are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or a traumatic brain injury. Currently one-third of the women in the military are sexually assaulted.
It’s clear that these policies of the global war on terror has had a profound effect on the military, my brothers and sisters, while simultaneously perpetuating a failed policy. And unfortunately, we have to live with that failed policy on a daily basis, and we don’t want to be a part of that failed policy anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Hughes. Last week, the Pentagon reports of sexual assault in the military increased by 46 percent in the past year. In total, more than 3,500 sexual assaults were reported from last October through June, compared to 2,400 over the period in the previous year. Pentagon officials claim the spike shows simply that more victims are coming forward. But sexual assaults are still dramatically underreported in the ranks. A survey estimated recently 26,000 people were sexually assaulted in 2011 alone. Can you talk about PTSD, about violence and about sexual assault in the military, Ann Jones?
ANN JONES: Well, I want to be sure to say that right now is a critical moment in terms of sexual assault, because they are—the Congress is about to pass the budget for the next year, and to that, Senator Gillibrand of New York has rallied other senators to try to pass a law that would take the prosecution, or the disposal of reports of sexual assault in the military, out of the chain of command, because people aren’t reporting because often they have to report to the very people who have assaulted them. And it’s crucial that your viewers get a hold of their congresspersons and senators right now and tell them to vote with Senator Gillibrand.
PTSD is a label that seems to cover everything and excuse everything. But another effect that it’s having in this current situation is that it leads soldiers to be, veterans to be heavily medicated. Now, that’s called treatment, but I’ve talked with one after another who tell me, “It didn’t treat me; it turned me into a zombie.” And the effect it has for the Pentagon is it shuts our veterans up, so they can’t tell us what it was like for them in the war. I think if we could hear those stories, if they could tell them, and we had the courage to listen to them, we would change our minds about giving our executives the authority to hurl into wars, of their own choice, these all-volunteer armies, that—as long as we have these standing armies, that corrupt our democracy, the executive can go to war anytime he wants with this army, because we’re no longer getting pushback from the parents of a really democratic army.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying, if there was a draft.
ANN JONES: If there was a draft or if the country were truly engaged in the preparations for war, we wouldn’t be able to go to war as easily as we do. And while I have not written a book about policy, I think if people read the description of what actually happens to our soldiers in war and what they do when they come back from the war, you have to see this as a real indictment of war, and maybe Americans would stand up again and oppose it.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Jones, I want to thank you very much for being with us, writer and photographer. Her new book is called They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story.