Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jamail and Lazare, Lost in Military Limbo

It's not exactly a secret that the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps, fighting two wars seemingly without end, have been under enormous stress. Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey recently compared the experience to being on a "treadmill," one, he added, that his service "likely will be on for some years to come."

Look at just about any indicator of stress and you can find the figures to back him up. For both the Army and the Marines, for example, alcohol and drug use has been significantly on the rise, as have mental problems, and especially a widely reported spate of suicides. These, according to the New York Times, have "risen to the highest level since record-keeping began three decades ago."

With suicides inexorably on the rise -- in the first six months of 2009 up 31% over the comparable period in 2008 -- this year seems sure to represent another grim record for the Army. The same is true for the Marines, where there are already 30 "confirmed or suspected" suicides this year, compared to 42 for all of 2008 (itself the highest total since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001). The Army is disturbed enough by all this, or by the drumbeat of media publicity about it, that it is now pouring $50 million into a five-year study of suicide and mental health among military personnel, "the largest... ever undertaken," according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Dahr Jamail, most recently author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Sarah Lazare have come across a hidden story about an Army platoon that offers another measure both of the growing misery in the military and of the ways our wars are coming home. Tom

Echo Platoon

Warehousing Soldiers in the Homeland
By Dahr Jamail and Sarah Lazare

Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.

For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life -- but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room. "

Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."

Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."

Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad."

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