It is a little known fact that by the end of World War II, which some historians call “the good war,” more than 500,000 men from the Army ground forces alone, not including Navy and Army Air Corps personnel, were discharged for psychiatric reasons. This was so even though about 12 percent of the 15 million draftees had been rejected as mentally unfit. These were not unstable personalities — they were all-American boys committed to doing their patriotic duty. But the stress and rigor of combat takes a toll. For every six men wounded in World War II, another became a neuropsychiatric casualty.
Combat stress is brutal and no one who hasn’t experienced it can imagine what it is like — the daily stress, the constant explosions, the sight of comrades being blown apart, the uncertainty of knowing when your own time will come — will begin to gnaw. People subjected to this stress for a long period of time begin to develop a blank stare as if they were adrift in another dimension aloof to their surroundings.
There were myriad ways soldiers broke down during World War II. In “An Army at Dawn,” historian Rick Atkinson offers graphic examples. On infantryman beat his head against his foxhole until his skin on his forehead was just hanging in strands. He was foaming at the mouth like a madman. Another, the only survivor of a truck hit by a mortar shell, loped into the night with a pair of suspenders in search of a tree from which to hang himself. Another arranged the bodies of two dead warriors, one American and one German, to shield him from an artillery barrage. Men by the thousands had tremors or paralysis in their limbs, dysfunctional bowels and vacant stares. Some tried to scoop foxholes in their hospital beds with their hands and feet.
The senior leaders of U.S. combat units came to realize the awful impact of combat stress on their troops. It became a rule of thumb that combat units in action for 30-40 days needed to be pulled out of the line for rest lest they begin to psychologically disintegrate. That was not always possible. In fact, it was seldom possible as the struggle against the Axis powers intensified. The result was an avalanche of psychological breakdowns.
Today as our seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue well into a second decade, we are seeing even higher levels of what is today called post-traumatic stress often aggravated by traumatic brain injury Our troops have wonderful armored vehicles that enable them to survive the ubiquitous improved explosive device favored by the enemy, but they still encounter tremendous forces that impact their heads severely. The soldiers of World War II had to endure severe stress, but if they could survive about a year — from D-Day to Germany’s surrender was about 11 months — their ordeal was over. They could go home and strive to return to normal life.
But today’s volunteer Army enjoys no such reprieve. The same small band of heroes must return to the combat zones again and again. I know of some who have served more than 10 tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, often both places. It is true they do not have to live in the mud and go long periods without food like the soldiers of World War II, but they do have to endure the unpredictable explosions and constant stress. They do have to see their comrades mangled and dying, knowing they could be next. It takes a toll.
The Obama administration had hoped that by now that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would be over and done with. That is clearly not the case. In fact, our commitments in both countries are on the increase. We are sending our heroes back to fight yet again for places they fought for only a few years ago.
We are today engaged in a ferocious conflict with an enemy every bit as savage and evil as those we faced in World War II. But this time we are not going to war together shoulder to shoulder with everyone involved. Instead, we must rely on a small cadre of professional military people representing less than 1 percent of our population. Few of us or our families are directly engaged or at risk.
This Memorial Day offers an opportunity for all of us in the fortunate 99 percent to express appreciation to the 1 percent who are shouldering the burden of our nation’s defense, and to beseech our Creator to endow us with the strength and determination we need to withstand this assault on our values and way of life.
• David W. Walker is president and CEO of Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.
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