A Base at War: First Impressions of Camp LeJeune Nine Years after my First Tour

This is just a brief post on some first impressions on my assignment to Camp LeJeune after a nine year absence from the base. When I left LeJeune and my assignment with the Second Marine Division I had just completed twenty years in the military though I was not even three years into my service as a Naval Officer.

Today I was part of a Casualty Assistance Team meeting with the family of a young Navy Corpsman and Afghanistan veteran who killed himself in his apartment last night.  The Corpsman was part of a family with a long tradition of Naval Service who in his time in the Navy had gone to war with a Marine Battalion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province and returned home changed by the war and struggling with PTSD and all the related symptoms of it.  This is something that I can understand having come back from Iraq in a rather bad way about two and a half years ago.  In my time with this young man’s parents today I found a young man that loved life but was wracked by his experiences of war.  He was well liked at his Marine Battalion as well as at the hospital and his death shocked the community almost as much as it did his family.  The sad thing is that this young man is emblematic the suicide problem in the military.  He is not alone, far too many Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen on active duty, in the Reserves or those that have left the service suffer so much from the unseen wounds of war that they commit suicide.  Since I have been here just a bit under two weeks this was a confirmation of what I knew just walking around the hospital, getting around the base and the local area.  Camp LeJeune is a base at war with Marines and Sailors fighting in Afghanistan and unfortunately many suffering from deep wounds of war at home living with physical, psychological, spiritual and moral injuries that don’t go away just because they return home.

When I left LeJeune in compliance with orders to the USS Hue City CG-66 in December 2001 we were just 3 months into the current war and barley two months into the Afghanistan campaign.  Marine morale was high though most Marines had not been to combat and those that had were veterans of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Somalia or the Balkans. Of course none of these actions lasted as long nor caused the amount of deaths as either the campaign in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Marines wanted to get a shot at the Al Qaeda terrorists that had attacked the United States and killed nearly 3000 Americans.

The Marines answered the call and have performed magnificently in every theater of the current war but the Corps has changed. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Marines had a swagger that was typical of the work hard; train hard and play hard attitude of the Corps.  The Corps is now composed of many battle hardened veterans that have made deployment after deployment to the hottest combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in which they took the initiative in both offensive operations in taking the battle to the enemy and employing solid counterinsurgency techniques especially in Al Anbar Province where the Iraqi Army performed quantitatively better under their tutelage in helping to turn the tide during the Anbar awakening.  Navy Corpsmen, Doctors and Chaplains serve alongside the Marines as they have done throughout our history.

I served with Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar in 2007 and early 2008 in many of the remotest parts of the province and have dealt with individual Marines since. The Marines still have much of their swagger but it seems more fatalistic now.  An expert in trauma and moral injury told me of a recent visit to Camp Pendleton where Marines referred to themselves as “the walking dead” in an almost cavalier manner. The sad thing is that for many Marines this is only half a joke. The Corps in 2009 had the highest suicide rate in the military at 24 per 100,000 and suicides continue at a similar pace in 2010.  http://www.yuma.usmc.mil/desertwarrior/2010/03/11/feature6.html One occurred on Camp LeJeune where a Marine Sergeant pulled out a pistol and shot himself after being pulled over by Military Police in front of the base Fire Station.

As I made my way around the base the past week or so, I saw a lot more Marines with canes and obvious physical injuries from their combat injuries incurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Marines as always were professional but appeared to be much more serious than 9 years ago, many seeming to be old beyond their years. I love serving with and around Marines because they have a unique sense of professionalism combined with humor that is unlike almost any found in any part of the United States Military. However that positive is sometimes offset by a need to maintain an image of toughness even when they are dying on the inside which leads many not to seek help because it might make them look weak or broken, terms that no self-respecting Marine wants associated with his or her name.

In addition to the obvious injuries I noticed that while there was a much more serious tenor around the base that the Staff Sergeants and Gunnery Sergeants are a lot younger than they used to be back 9 years ago. With the war lasting as long as it has and the coupled with the expansion of the Marines during the war coupled with casualties and attrition by other means these young men and women are being promoted sooner than they were in the prewar days. Their leadership experience is mostly combat-related and they are in general superb combat leaders. However, this does not always translate well in a garrison setting especially if they are dealing with their own untreated PTSD or TBI nor is it helpful on the home front. As a result many of these young leaders are suffering the breakups of families at a record rate as well as substance abuse when they return home.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a speech at Duke University on September 29th of this year:

“There are a number of consequences that stem from the pressure repeated of deployments – especially when a service member returns home sometimes permanently changed by their experience.  These consequences include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began.  And, most tragically, a growing number of suicides.

While we often speak generally of a force under stress, in reality, it is certain parts of the military that have borne the brunt of repeat deployments and exposure to fire – above all, junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties.  These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up close.  They’ve lost friends and comrades.  Some are struggling psychologically with what they’ve seen, and heard and felt on the battlefield.  And yet they keep coming back.” http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1508

These young men and women have forged a bond in combat and in many cases multiple combat tours. The have served well with honor and many don’t feel that people who have not been “in the shit” understand them or what they have been through.  There is a comradeship that comes out of war. There is segment at the end of the Band of Brothers mini-series where a German Commander is speaking to his soldiers after they have surrendered to the Americans. As the German Commander speaks to the survivors of his unit Corporal Joe Liebgott is asked to translate by another American. As he translates the German officer’s words the Americans know that he also speaks for their experience of war:

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

I think that sums up what many feel today except unlike the Germans our war drags on with no end in sight.

The Marines are still tough and a force to be reckoned with on any battlefield. They, especially the Marine Divisions are an elite force but I believe that many are losing some of their resilience as the war goes in Afghanistan goes on.  Many from reports that I have read as well as those that I have talked with are concerned that much of the country doesn’t support the war nor appreciate their sacrifice. Many are concerned that their sacrifices as well as those of their friends, those killed and wounded will be wasted and the suffering that goes on after the war will be swept aside by politicians, the media and the public at large. They are also concerned that the people that they have worked with against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and those that they have tried to protect and care for will suffer even more if the Taliban return to power.  I can say that I worry about my Iraqi friends and fear for them when I hear news of more attacks.

In the midst of this war we went through a number of elections and it troubles me that in the last election that the war and those fighting it were hardly ever mentioned by candidates from either party.  We mentioned it was usually for show to help politicians gain favor with voters.  We deserve better, we are not just a something to talk about at political rallies that when the election is over simply budget item to be slashed because the country is in a mess. These young men and women, as well as old guys like me are the sons, daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters that have volunteered to serve this country.  The wounds that these young men and women, their experiences in combat that have left their souls scared will not go away when the last American leaves Iraq or Afghanistan.

This young man that we lost last night will be buried by his family and we will have a memorial service in his honor.  His many friends will grieve and those of us who are caring for his family will not forget them. I don’t want this young man or any other to be forgotten like so many who have returned from war before them.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

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