Blogs

Study Published on the Unmet Needs of Soldiers

Last month, Oxford University Press’ Military Medicine published a study about military service members who seek medical services, including mental health services, outside of the military.  With approximately 20 veteran and 1 active duty suicides per day, serious unresolved issues exist with military service itself and with the access (and perceived access) to the most appropriate medical care.

At Quaker House, we are familiar with the factors involved in this high rate of suicide, especially through our GI Rights Hotline counselors and our licensed social work counselor.  The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Howard Waitzkin, understands the critical nature of this work.  He is the director of the Civilian Medical Resources Network (CMRN), an organization that he founded to provide medical care for active-duty service members when they seek assistance.

The study found a prevalence of several themes in client narratives about why they sought medical care outside the military, including insufficient and unresponsive services (93%), fear of reprisal for seeking services (56%), mistrust of command (48%), pre-existing mental health disorders (22%), military sexual trauma (22%), and cost as a barrier to receiving health care (19%).

Additionally, two of the themes that arose during intake interviews included guilt about killing or injuring others (one of the symptoms of moral injury) and, sadly, being afraid of their peers.  It makes sense that these soldiers seek help outside of the military environment—an environment that trains them to kill reflexively in high-stress, time-collapsed, and chaotic situations.  Afterwards, it may appear that other members of their unit are not, likewise, subsequently second-guessing and engaging in self-judgment for those same actions.

The military is making attempts to address these issues through programs such as resiliency training for soldiers’ thought patterns, reintegration training after deployments, and training in awareness and response to suicide warning signs.  It is encouraging that a journal such as Military Medicine published this article on why mental health care within the military is not meeting the needs.  However, it should be self-evident that the best solution is to work earnestly towards ending war by investing more in diplomacy, community capacity building, mutual understanding, and peace.  In the study article, Dr. Waitzkin encourages the consideration of “preventive strategies such as non-military alternatives to conflict resolution.”  Otherwise, we (the general public) are sacrificing people who hope to do something good (keep the people of their country safe) to our own blindness and entrenchment.

While we work for a wider acceptance of peace as both a means and an end, this study proposes better options for healing the invisible wounds of war—wounds that affect not just soldiers, but their families and communities, as well.

Dr. Waitzkin notes in the article, “The military should encourage GIs’ use of civilian-sector services that do not involve the ethical conflicts inherent in military medicine and mental health care.  Such civilian services should be based in not-for-profit organizations that do not benefit financially by restricting their services.”

Because Quaker House is a private, nonprofit organization, we nullify the barrier to care that exists because of fear of reprisal and mistrust of command that acts as a barrier to care.  (In the military healthcare system, records can be shared with a soldier’s commanding officer).  Our local, in-person counseling program helps clients deal with issues of sexual assault, moral injury, and domestic violence, and we engage in public education and advocacy on these issues.  Thanks to the support of our donors, our services are free of charge, despite the fact that our counselors are paid.

Donors, like you, are the sustaining life of Quaker House.  We need and appreciate your support.  More importantly, our clients depend upon it. 

Inspire to Serve or Conspire to Conscript?

Congress has created a new commission--The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.  Its web site (url of inspire2serve.gov) sports photos of young teenagers who look like they are just hanging out together after school or perhaps at a summer camp.  In these photos, there is no hint that these fun, go-lucky young people are thinking about how to fire automatic rifles at other young people, throw grenades, drop bombs, and make split-second life-and-death decisions in chaotic and unclear circumstances.  To be fair, the Commission’s mandate is not just about military service requirements.  It is also covers future requirements or incentives to inspire more people to enter other areas of public service.

The Mandate:  This commission is tasked with gathering information in order to make proposals for updating the regulations and laws in the following areas:
Selective Service—Is it still needed or should it be discontinued, does anything need to be changed?
Draft—The Selective Service is the draft.  Currently, all 18-year-old men (and the Commission is considering women) are required to register with the Selective Service, and your local draft board is currently staffed.  If, at any point, Congress and the President authorize a draft, everything is already in place for it to be implemented instantaneously.
Military, National, Public Service—Should a service requirement be mandatory for young adults in the United States?  If not mandatory, how can public service be encouraged?

Advocating Peace:  The initial listening session of this Commission was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 23, 2018, and Quaker House was there to comment.  Only Quaker House (Kindra Bradley), the Center on Conscience & War (Bill Galvin and Maria Santelli), and a Mennonite long-time peace advocate and counselor for the GI Rights Network (Titus Peachey) spoke on behalf of conscientious objectors.  Our collective comments covered eliminating the Selective Service System, restoring the full rights of people who have not registered with the Selective Service, officially allowing registrants to self-designate as conscientious objectors during Selective Service registration if it is maintained, and ensuring that any alternative service program is run by a civil agency and with the same benefits as military service.  I was somewhat encouraged that two veterans who commented after we made our statements publicly agreed that the US should allow people to be conscientious objectors without punishment or other negative characterization.

The existence of the Selective Service System and the design of the registration forms are indicators of our nation’s attitude about war.  Registering as a potential soldier is the only official option available on the registration form.  A young person is simply unable to register officially as claiming conscientious objector status or as requesting to perform alternative humanitarian service in the event of a draft.  Similarly, as a nation, we accept war and violence too easily as the only alternative during international conflict.

Make peace an option, both individually and as a nation.

Future Sessions:  We are concerned about the lack of communication from the Commission.  Publicity about the listening session in Harrisburg was too little, and very late.  As of the publication of this newsletter, no other locations or dates are listed on the Commission’s web site.  However, because Quaker House was at the Harrisburg meeting, we do have some information.  All listening sessions for 2018 will be completed by September of this year.  Those locations will be in

  • California,
  • Colorado (Denver),
  • Florida,
  • Illinois,
  • Iowa,
  • Tennessee, and
  • Texas. 

We do not have dates or cities (other than Denver).  Quaker House will continue to monitor the Commission’s web site and communications and publish that information on our Facebook page, our emails, and our web site.  If you would like to be added to the Quaker House e-newsletter, please let us know by emailing us at qpr@quaker.org!

Format:  The two-hour Harrisburg listening session began with Commission and local speakers, a panel of people who had been involved in some sort of public service (PennSERVE, Navy, and AmeriCorps) speaking for the first hour.  The second hour was allotted for public comment.  Comments were limited to two minutes, and Commission representatives took contact information from each person who spoke.

Action Item:  Your opinion, knowledge, and experiences are important!  The Selective Service System, draft, impact on conscientious objectors, and public service as voluntary or mandatory activity will have long-standing and life-changing impacts on young people and on our country as a whole.  We hope you will attend one of the public listening sessions, if you are able.  If you cannot attend in person (and even if you can), please submit your comments through the Commission’s online portal found at inspire2serve.gov/content/share-your-thoughts or through the mail at:

National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service
Attn: RFI COMMENT—Docket 05-2018-01
2530 Crystal Drive, Suite 1000, Room 1029
Arlington, VA 22202

The Federal Register portal for comment says that the public comment period ends April 19, 2018, well before the last hearing in September.  Please make your voice heard, and share this information far and wide.  The time is now.


Interested in resources for helping young people learn to discern their own leadings regarding conscientious objection and possibly building a documentation file to support a claim? We have resources to help!

Child Soldiers and the Transformation of a Navy Petty Officer

In December 2016, we received a call from a sailor who wanted our support as she applied for conscientious objection.  Petty Officer Allen’s* story provides a powerful example of a military member who was transformed through her experiences and found the courage to state publicly and emphatically her opposition to war.  We share her story here in gratitude for all of our donors who make it possible for us to support Petty Officer Allen and others like her.  

By her own account, Petty Officer Allen grew up sheltered and relatively privileged, but by 18 knew she wanted to contribute something meaningful to society.  Skilled at learning languages, she enlisted in the Navy as a translator and reported for duty in November 2013.  Smart, ambitious, and dedicated, she threw herself into her training as a linguist at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and later in Georgia at her permanent duty station.  Her teachers at DLI, many of them native Arabs, shared stories about their once-beautiful homes and countries that had been destroyed by war.  For the first time, she was exposed to other cultures and ways of life.  She felt a strong desire to see more of the world and to meet new people. 

Highly successful, Petty Officer Allen promoted quickly.  Near the end of 2015, she also began volunteering with the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a nonprofit youth organization that recruits youth to the sea-going military services.  Petty Officer Allen loved the work and quickly became a recruiting and public affairs officer.  She got to know her cadets well, establishing close bonds with them:  We would joke together, talk about their crushes, their first car, how “mean” their teachers were.  I was their mentor, but I also bonded with them.  I was extremely passionate and dedicated to the Sea Cadets, often referring to them as “my kids.”  Local enrollment numbers tripled due to my extensive recruiting efforts.

Most of the first nine months of 2016 were taken up with more training.  She became a little disillusioned by the politics and sexism she experienced in military culture and decided that she would not reenlist after her six-year contract.  Late that summer, she also traveled with her best friend to New Orleans, where she felt spiritual stirrings.  She returned from that trip sensing a connection between all living things and realizing that love and beauty could be found in everyday life.  Then things grew difficult.

Back from leave, Petty Officer Allen began working as a cryptologic technician interpretive (CTI) to provide linguistic support to forward-deployed troops.  The classification of her work prevented her from disclosing specific details, but working at her desk in Georgia, using the technology that allowed her to support deployed troops without ever seeing combat herself, she had a horrible revelation.

In the course of my work that night, I became aware for the first time of children being involved in what we were working on overseas.  “Enemy” children were being forced to fight for ideology that they simply were not mature enough to understand, much less support.  I was thoroughly shaken to the core and wound up sobbing in the bathroom.  I remember staring in the mirror, feeling distant from myself, wondering how old the kids were and how they got involved, and how I got involved in this.  I felt bad and guilty, because we had people over there, one of them I knew personally.  I wanted all of them to make it home safely, but that meant “eliminating the threat,” which I now knew included children. I had vaguely been aware that this horrible act of conscription occurred in the world, but actually witnessing it for myself made me question everything:  the cost of war, the inherent good of mankind, my role in all of this as a member of the military.  I found myself asking, “How could people make their kids do this?  How are we okay with all of this?  How do we stop it, change it?”

That same week, the “enemy” launched an unwarranted, unprovoked attack.  No one was injured, but I listened with a heavy heart as my coworkers joked more than once about “blowing up the bad guys.”  I found myself curious what “the bad guys’” names were, if they had a wife waiting anxiously for them to come home, if they were following in the footsteps of their fathers, if they did those things because they’ve never known a different way of life.  I had to stop thinking about these questions because it was too painful.  A few days later, I learned that we had “eliminated the threat.”  I wondered what happened to those children.

Afterward, the entire month of October 2016 became especially difficult for me.  My personal and professional motivation declined.  Some of my friends and co-workers noticed the change in my demeanor.  When I realized the way children were compelled to participate in armed conflicts, that children were “the enemy,” the stakes became too high for me, the trade-offs in lives being taken no longer seemed acceptable.  I began asking myself if war really was necessary and if these lives really did have to be taken.

I realized the closeness in ages between the child soldiers and my Sea Cadets.  I realized that I didn’t want to hear five or ten years from now that one of my former Sea Cadets was killed in action.  Finding my heart was no longer dedicated to the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps, I quit.  I knew I couldn’t continue to encourage children to join the military.

At this point, I felt that my role in the military was no longer a way to make the world better.  I now saw my participation in death and destruction as something that was making the world worse.  I was working night shift, and when I would finally get home as the sun was rising, I laid in bed for hours, unable to sleep, my heart racing.  When I finally passed out, I had a recurring dream of being surrounded and stared at by faceless, emotionless children.  It became hard to drag myself out of bed, even on my days off.  For over a month, I was only eating once a day, usually junk from the vending machine at work.  I couldn’t find the energy to meal prep anymore.

I knew that something had to change:  I needed out of the military, out of the negative bubble I was in, out of feeling like I was an awful person because of the work I was doing.  But I didn’t know what to do.  A different mission or a different rating wouldn’t change how I felt about participating in a war-fighting organization, because it would still be in support of "winning wars," and I didn’t agree with war as a whole.

Petty Officer Allen’s grandmother came to visit her that fall and helped her realize that she fit the description of a conscientious objector.  Petty Officer Allen did some research, contacted Quaker House counselors, and decided to apply.  Over the course of several weeks we went over the process with her and helped her put together her written application.  She submitted it to the Navy and began the slow process of waiting for an answer.  During the wait, she sent us several bars of beautifully crafted soap, that she had made herself, with a note of gratitude.  She wrote in her application:

War, in my opinion, is not morally acceptable; the end does not justify the means.  I believe that it is a crime against humanity, and there are never any winners—everyone  loses.  In my job as a CTI, I learn the targets’ names, I see them as individual people, and that makes it personal to me.  I feel connected to them as fellow beings on this Earth. I’ve studied their culture, their language, their religion, and I see what they are, unfortunately, taught from a very young age.  I’ve also been taught things as an American from a very young age that I am trying to overcome.  People are forced to fight for causes they don’t believe in, or ideology they’ve been indoctrinated since birth to accept.  I cannot hate them for that.  I cannot hate them for doing what they have to for survival.  I cannot hate them for not knowing any other way of life.  We have no control over the circumstances of our birth, like what country we happened to have been born in.  I believe that we are all creatures of the same planet, and we are all connected to one another.  To me, all human life is precious, and therefore, I cannot kill another human being in war, or contribute to their murder.

I was moved and reassured that I am making the right choice when I read these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.  Will we be extremists for love or hate?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice?”  A life of love, peace and happiness is the life I wish to lead, not one of hatred, violence and negativity.

Last December, Petty Officer Allen was honorably separated from the Navy as a conscientious objector.  She immediately left Georgia and traveled to Europe, returning home in time to be with her grandma for Christmas.


*Petty Officer Allen’s story, words, and name used with her permission. We vigorously protect the confidentiality of people who call into the hotline.

Frances Crowe--Vietnam Era Conscientious Objector Guide

I had the most delightful telephone conversation about a week ago with Frances Crowe.

In Quaker House’s last newsletter (Winter 2017/2018), I asked people to share stories about their experiences with conscientious objection, from any war, any moral basis (any denomination or secular moral reasons), and by any method (formal conscientious objection application to draft avoiders). I want to preserve the stories, find common themes, learn how we can better support conscientious objectors throughout the years, and possibly uncover any other lessons that might exist for us. Frances Crowe read our newsletter and gave me a call.

Maybe you know about her, already. She has lived out her leadings to assist in peace efforts and environmental protection throughout her life. If you do not know her story well, I would like to share some of the things she shared with me yesterday.

Beginning in August 1968, Frances began working with young men facing the draft for the Vietnam War. She found that working with them in groups in her home worked particularly well, partly because they were able to work out their thoughts and convictions as they talked with each other. She would ask them, “What is it you are objecting, too?” and found that this question was particularly helpful in helping them to formulate their discomfort and concerns into the words and narratives that were required for the conscientious objector applications and, indeed, their own understanding of their convictions. Not only did these young men provide support for each other as they worked on their applications, but they often would return to support and assist the men who were just beginning their own process.

She told me that she never had less than 8 people in a group at her home and no more than 79. When I gave a little exclamation at the idea of having 79 people in her home to work with, she laughed and said, “They took over the whole house that day. We had groups working in every room and out on the lawn.”

Because each successful conscientious objector applicant fulfilled one of the slots in the local quota, and because Frances’ work was so effective, the draft board took notice of the significant variance in the draft statistics and asked what was going on in Boston to cause this anomaly. The answer came back, “It’s a little old lady who’s a Quaker.” Now, I was born while my father was serving one of two tours in Vietnam, so I have an instant timeframe reference for how long ago the Vietnam War was, and Frances had just referred to a description of herself as a “little old lady.” She must have heard my eyebrows raise through the phone line because she told me, “I was 60 then. I am 98 years old now.” By her count, she counseled and assisted 1,169 young men as they worked through their beliefs on the sacredness of life and its relationship to conscientious objection. What an incredible legacy. She likely had a pivotal impact on their lives from that point on. Having seen some of the effects that war can have on the wholeness of soldiers’ identities, I cannot fully grasp the magnitude of what she did for those she served.

As we were closing our conversation and I was thinking about how much I respected her, I asked if she had saved her experiences in writing. Thankfully, she has. Finding My Radical Soul is her memoir, and I cannot wait to read it.

Are you one of the young men that worked on your conscientious objection application in the home of Frances Crowe? I would love to hear from you. If you are willing to share your story (just with me and with Frances or with permission to share publicly), please contact me at qpr@quaker.org or by calling (910) 323-3912.

 

Spiritual Re-Awakenings

One of the most exciting areas of our work is helping conscientious objectors (CO) obtain discharge from the military.  We do not go out and convince people to become conscientious objectors.  By the time they contact us, most have already had a sincere change of heart.  There are not a lot of reliable places for people to get help in applying, so many find us through an internet search.   The GI Rights Hotline is consistently listed on the first page of most search engine results.

Right now, we have at least six people in different stages of applying for CO status.  Several of them are putting together their written application (the first step).  Another applicant, at the opposite end of the process, has received informal approval and is waiting for the final paperwork that will complete her honorable discharge.  Two of our current applicants are officers. 

For many people, putting their beliefs into words is difficult.  One recent applicant wrote:


“I think the hardest thing for myself filing for conscientious objection is what people would say and think about me as if I’m not being truthful and why did I even join in the first place.  ‘You knew what you were getting into and how did all the sudden your views change.’  It’s hard to talk about things like these because I hate to feel judged in a bad manner but this is how I felt.  It harder than most people think to talk about.  Not everyone has the courage to say how they truly feel.”
 

A common myth people have about conscientious objectors is that they are “weak” people who cannot hack the serious mental and physical demands placed upon servicemembers.  Our experience has been that the opposite is true and that some of these applicants had been among the most successful servicemembers prior to their change in belief.  Many write about being highly motivated to serve when they joined.  One applicant was a combat-decorated martial arts expert.  Another was an ace pilot selected for special missions.  Many have been promoted ahead of schedule and recognized for their leadership, including Honor Graduate and Soldier of the Month. 

One Marine we worked with was recognized by her peers as the person who rallied them to get out of bed and go running in the rain.  She was meritoriously promoted into an intelligence position and sent overseas on deployment to collect information on human targets.  A crystallizing moment happened when someone she had been tracking was killed while she and others monitored the situation remotely.  The rest of the people in the room cheered and did high fives for “taking him out.”  Her command wanted her to recognize the good work she had done, but inside she felt lost and alone.  Through her work, she had come to know this targeted person as a human being and she felt devastated witnessing him being killed. 

At her Investigating Officer Hearing, the captain assigned to her case tried to argue that she had no connection to what happened.  He said that she had not pulled the trigger and had not given the order to take his life.  She respectfully replied that the roomful of people she was with at the time certainly made the connection between her work and the completed kill.  He tried to explain that all she had done was provide information about illegal activity.  According to him, doing her job and providing this kind of information was always the morally correct thing to do. She felt, if the others could high-five each other and cheer in pride over their contributions, then she had every right to feel morally troubled about her own.  Later, she did receive an honorable discharge. 

Her story illustrates the fallacy in the idea that conscientious objectors are weak.  As fit and skilled as she was, she had no problem with the mental and physical demands of being in the military.  It was the moral demands that were at issue.  She demonstrated her strength in that component of character, as well.  In the process of sorting out her feelings, she had discussed her concerns about her role with some of her coworkers and discovered that she was not the only one with hesitations.  But, while others could set their moral concerns aside and go with the flow, she could not.

We are grateful to everyone for the resources and support you give to allow us to be there for these conscientious objectors and to help them navigate a way to a future where their hearts can rest outside of warmaking.  They frequently express gratitude for your generosity to them.

_______________

This post was an article in our Winter 2017/2018 newsletter. Let us know if you would like to be on either our electronic or regular postal mailing list to receive our quarterly newsletters.

The Story of the Afghan Children

The opportunity to witness the court-martial of Bowe Bergdahl allowed me to hear another story in that military courtroom.

Retired Navy SEAL James Hatch testified of the circumstances under which he was shot in the leg during a search and rescue operation for Bowe.  As part of that account, he told the Court details that did not relate to Bowe directly, but that illustrate the untold costs of war.

Visibility was terrible during this mission and, as they approached the village, the team was attacked.  Vaguely seeing three individuals in a ditch, Chief Petty Officer Hatch sent a military dog, Remco, over to assess the risk to US forces.  The dog bit the largest person.  When Hatch followed, he found three children.  The child who was bit was an approximately 11-year-old girl, and the two others were approximately 3 years old.  He scooped up the younger children and tried to get the older girl to follow him, but she was so terrified she was frozen in a fetal position.  He ran the two younger children to the center of a field, came back for the older child, and then placed signals around them to alert air support that these were civilians.

Of course, I am grateful that he protected the children in the middle of an open cross-fire situation.  However, I cannot shake the image or the probable context of the unfolding events from my mind.  An 11-year-old girl in a ditch with two 3-year-olds?  Either under direction from adults or on her own, she was attempting to take responsibility for and protect two very young children from death by military assault (even if it was defensive fire) in the middle of a poor-visibility night.  During those desperate efforts, she was bit by a military dog.  That was just one piece of a larger traumatizing event – an event set against a background of unceasing conflict.  And, what of the two 3-year-old children?

How many stories are there like this, stories of which we know nothing?

_______________

This post was an article in our Winter 2017/2018 newsletter. Let us know if you would like to be on either our electronic or regular postal mailing list to receive our quarterly newsletters.

Torture--It's Relevance Today

Last week, Quaker House attended public hearings about flights and airplanes that were used to transport prisoners to black sites around the world where they were tortured, mainly from September 2001 to September 2006. These hearings were about airfields and a flight company based in North Carolina, but the testimony has implications for each of us in the United States and the rest of the world. All information in this post comes from testimony heard at the public hearings conducted by the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture on November 30 and December 1, 2017.

By way of context, flights originating in North Carolina flew to Washington DC to pick up a CIA team, flew to a location where a target individual was detained for loading (see below), flew to a black site (sometimes with a stop or transfer in between), flew the CIA transfer team to a rest and relaxation location, returned the team to Washington DC, and then returned to one of two public airfields in North Carolina. Sixty different circuits involving 19 aircraft have been identified by the Rendition Project.

This method of rendition is torture. The process of extraordinary rendition (the secret movement of a prisoner to another country), particularly as practiced between 2001 and 2006, was an intended integrated part of the overall torture process. Victims of the torture program all tell the same story about their rendition experience, indicating there was a standard operating procedure. They were taken to a room and blindfolded and their life and families threatened. The people in that room were dressed all in black and masked. Every piece of clothing was cut off of them, a suppository was violently inserted into the rectum, and they were diapered. They were put in pants and shirts that came to mid-calf and mid-forearm, shackled hand and foot and to their waists, material was stuffed in their ears and muffled over top, and they were forced onto a plane. They were injected with a drug, placed on something like a backboard on the floor of the plane and strapped down, and forced to remain in the same position for the multiple hours of the flight. If they tried to adjust their positions due to pain or make any sound, they were kicked and punched. If they tried to say anything, their mouths were taped shut. Some victims reported having their whole body bound by tape. They did not know where they were going, what had happened to their families, or why this was happening to them. They agonized over these concerns and over the distress their families must be feeling at their sudden unexplained disappearance.

The Senate Report on Torture focuses on what happened to these individuals after they reached black sites. But, it is clear, both from the standardized procedure and the terror and pain it inflicted, that the torture systematically began from the moment of capture. This characterization of the transfer experience has been confirmed by the victims. Many victims were transferred more than once and the procedure was the same each time—inducing fear and anxiety the moment they were told they would be transferred again. The integrated infliction of terror and pain is important because the flights that picked these people up and during which this torture was inflicted originated in the United States, the planes were operated by American civilians, and flight plans and logistics were prepared by American companies (for example, Aero Contractors provided planes and flight crews and Jeppesen Dataplan, which is a subsidiary of Boeing, as well as DynCorp (later became CSC) prepared flight plans).

Effects of torture are not limited to the victims. Torture dehumanizes all those involved in its infliction and corrupts society in increasingly larger segments. The torture program did not involve just CIA operatives. As noted above, civilian planes and flight crews were used to help maintain secrecy. Military personnel were assigned. More distressingly, psychoanalyst Steven Soldz and Guantanamo Bay defense counsel Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas described how health professionals have been implicated. The Salim v. Mitchell case was settled in August 2017 against two psychiatrists who were contracted by the CIA to design torture methods. At Guantanamo Bay, when medical personnel assessed victims, they did not allow the patients to talk about what happened to them. Memories of detainees were considered classified information and, therefore, a medical professional must have top secret clearance to hear about detainees' experiences other than the most basic information. Regarding military personnel, David Gushee’s report to the Commission observed that the systematic implementation of torture “created an ethos of permission to abuse prisoners that trickled down and out to other sectors and actors.”

Torture isolates us. Former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora told the Commission that the United Kingdom initiated high-level discussions with the United States in an attempt to reign in the US torture program. When it became apparent that records from these talks could not be absolutely protected from subpoena by European and international courts, the United States ended the talks. He also described other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, refusing to participate in joint military operations with US forces because of fear of liability for war crimes. He said, “Other countries would not follow the United States into the swamp of torture because they could not legally and did not want to morally.”

A program of torture can happen again. Neither the United States, nor its states, has prosecuted any individuals for torture. We have not made reparations. We have not strengthened our laws to make it easier to prosecute actors who aided and abetted the CIA torture program. Verla Insko, a North Carolina State Representative, testified that North Carolina House Bills 1682 and 2417 to give the state jurisdiction on cases like Aero Contractors and Johnston Regional Airport did not even make it to a vote. For the most part, as a people, we have turned a blind eye, hoping to forget, without ever truly acknowledging how an approval of torture happened. Mora warned that, if a national security crisis were to happen in our current political climate, torture could gain political support again all too easily. When Representative Insko was asked by the Commission for recommendations, she simply said, “Elect different people.”

But, to elect different people, we must change the nature of our conversations and media portrayals. Repeatedly, the witnesses before the Commission testified that torture has been shown to not work in eliciting reliable information (military intelligence officer Steve Kleinman described how fear and pain shuts down memory retrieval). Many of the witnesses stressed to the Commission that, regardless of whether torture works, it is immoral and it is illegal by the treaties we helped draft, we signed, and we ratified. This is how we should be talking about torture: It is illegal. It is immoral. It does not work. It damages us as a nation. It dehumanizes all who are connected to it.

We have a responsibility to each other. Finally, as the executive director of Quaker House, I must plead for us to remember that the policies that we endorse or to which we silently acquiesce can have horrific impacts on our children, family members, neighbors, friends, and society. When torture became an acceptable policy of the United States, people were put into terrible moral dilemmas. In their professional roles, individuals had to decide either to obey a superior officer or take on all the immediate risks and consequences of defying an order. Military service members are not supposed to obey an illegal order. But, every bit of their training is designed to make them immediately compliant to orders--for safety of life and completion of mission--and the group pressure is immense. If we vicariously demand individuals to comply with an order to assist or ignore torture, as guards, medical personnel, aircraft crew members, translators, or what have you, we have condemned them to an awful fate. We have put them in conflict with the essence of what it means to be human and to have a moral center. Our responsibility is to say loudly and clearly that torture is not acceptable and that it will not ever again be a policy of the United States.

“Although the connections are not always obvious, personal change is inseparable from social and political change.”

~ Harriet Lerner, psychologist

Bergdahl, Moral Injury, and Our Responsibility

Bowe Bergdahl likely has moral injury. Symptoms of moral injury include feelings of shame or guilt for events that are in conflict with a person’s essential inner moral code and that may have occurred outside of that individual’s control. Nonetheless, the person feels responsibility for the outcomes.[1] In charging Bowe with misbehavior before the enemy,[2] the government placed, squarely on Bowe’s shoulders, the sole responsibility[3] for severe injuries of three soldiers (one of whom was shot through the head and is now in a persistent minimally conscious state, requiring 24-hour nursing care) as well as the death of the military dog, Remco,[4] who was shot in the head during one of the search and rescue missions.

Not only did the government argue energetically and persistently that Bowe was directly responsible for these injuries, but Bowe was in court, listening to the circumstances surrounding the injuries and to the detailed accounts of the after effects of these injuries. At one point, we saw a video that was recorded by a camera worn by one of the team leaders as a search and rescue operation was just beginning. As the video played, we heard the team leader say, “Someone is going to be injured or killed, all because some kid decided to wander off.” Similar statements were repeatedly made throughout the hearing by various witnesses. The sense of responsibility for the well-being of fellow soldiers is strong within military units. In hindsight, Bowe knows, in graphic detail, that rather than helping his fellow soldiers (something powerfully strong in his own moral code), his decision put them in greater danger. This is the type of dissonance that leads to moral injury. 

In his guilty plea, Bowe accepted responsibility for leaving his post and for the aftermath of that fateful decision. However, the full picture is a bit more complex. At the time that these soldiers were injured, Bowe was shackled hand and foot, and he was likely already in Pakistan.[5] He neither pulled the triggers that injured these soldiers, nor could he have prevented those injuries once he was captured by the Taliban and held by the Haqqani Network. However, it would not be surprising if he internalizes intense guilt and shame for these events and their ongoing effects. This is moral injury, and it can be devastatingly relentless in its hold on and destruction of an individual.

Bowe should be able to receive the mental health and physical medical care that he needs for his experiences as a prisoner of war. We, the American people, placed him in a combat zone in Afghanistan, and he was tortured for almost five years specifically because he was an American service member. We owe him that.

 

[1] Litz, B.T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L. et al. (2009) “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy.” Clinical Psychology Review 29, p. 698.

[3] During the sentencing hearing, the defense team presented evidence of other causal factors that should be taken into account when assigning responsibility for the injuries that occurred. Intelligence analyst Amber Dach was permitted to give brief testimony that from July 2009 to September 2009 was the only period in her 16-year career in which constraints were placed on what she and her team could officially include in reports to be shared with the military command structure. One of these constraints was that all information had to have two corroborating independent sources. She testified that, during that time period, she felt that her team was restricted from giving their honest assessments in these official reports, due to this constraint. The implication from her testimony was that her team had credible information that Bowe had already been moved to Pakistan, but because it had not been corroborated by an additional separate source, she was forbidden from sharing that information.

In addition, due to forces already stretched too thin in numbers and due to the increased tempo of search and rescue operations (now known to be without any chance of success if Bowe was no longer in Afghanistan), some teams were pulled together from wherever personnel could be found. One such team was led by an Air Force intelligence office--for a ground search and rescue mission. When he received orders to put together a team and he informed his command that all other team members were already gone with other units on other missions, he was told to find people and go. A National Guard unit was passing through his area on the way to its assigned area, and he pulled members from that unit for the mission.

The purpose of this footnote is not to shift blame to any one person or entity, but to show that blame for the injuries suffered by soldiers involved in search and rescue operations should be distributed across a complex web of factors and decision-makers—not solely on Bowe Bergdahl and his one terrible decision. In fact, as individuals and as citizens of this country, we also share some of the responsibility for what happened because our government is supposed to be responsive to our dictates, whether we are informed and voice our desires or not.

[4] See blog post “Bergdahl’s Compassion for Animals Now a PTSD Trigger” for additional information about the gravity with which Bowe likely also views this death. There was detailed testimony from a Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch about seeing Remco get shot in the head and the efforts to revive him during medical evacuation on the helicopter (“his jaw was blown off”). In addition, Remco’s vest was presented in court as demonstrative evidence to show how it was damaged when it was cut off of him (responsibility for destruction of military property is included in the misbehavior before the enemy charge).

[5] See footnote 3.

 

 

Bergdahl's Compassion for Animals Now a PTSD Trigger

Bowe Bergdahl has a tender heart, as evidenced by his compassion for and connection with animals. Since returning from Afghanistan, on his own time, Bowe has worked with an organization that rescues feral cats, and the lady who runs the rescue calls him the cat whisperer because, for some reason, these cats trust him. He has been able to successfully work with the cats so well that 23 have been placed for adoption.

Part of Bowe’s mental health condition is that he has trouble anticipating second and third-order consequences of his actions. In testimony given to illustrate this, we learned that the first time he went on a fishing trip, he had no idea that the fish would be killed.[1]

His care for animals has unfortunately become twisted into a trigger for PTSD flashbacks. During his almost five years of captivity, Bowe was constantly shown videos of beheadings. One of these videos showed the Taliban executing an Afghan man. It was in the early gray dawn. In the silence of the world, the man was permitted to say his final words. As the man slowly and haltingly made these final utterances, in the long pauses between the phrases, a rooster would break the silence with its crowing. Bowe testified that he had grown up among animals and had a favorite type of rooster. These associations heightened the emotional effect of that terrible video.

While awaiting his court-martial and in between the hearings, Bowe has been stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Ft. Sam in Texas because it is the Army’s designated installation for specialty care and reintegration of prisoners of war. This post also happens to have an area of historical exhibit near Bowe’s work assignment for visitor education. It has live animals of the kinds that would have been associated with Army encampments in the past. One of these animals is a rooster that crows in the early gray mornings as Bowe comes into work. When he hears that rooster, his emotional connection to this animal and the memories of his youth have now been twisted into a powerful flashback trigger to the video of the man in despair and fear, uttering his last words, knowing that he is about to be gruesomely and mercilessly executed.

As the defense reminded the court in closing arguments, Bowe left his Afghanistan remote post, but he did not have malicious motivations for this act. Despite its nature and the fact that it was contrary to his training, he believed he was ultimately going to acheive something good.

Can we not meet the demands of justice as handed down in his court-martial sentence and also have the mercy of compassion for Bowe Bergdahl? 


[1] Another example was a time he flew to France on a one-way ticket to try to join the French Foreign Legion, not understanding that he would need to be able to speak French (which he did not) or that he would, therefore, need a return ticket.

 

Refugees and Military Members: Not So Different After All?

[This is the complete version of an article written for the Quaker House Winter 2017 Newsletter. It is enriched by illustrative examples from her own experiences working with refugees that were omitted from the newsletter due to space limitations.]

“I will write songs against you,
enemies of my people; I will pelt you
with the winged seeds of the dandelion;
I will marshall against you
the fireflies of the dusk."

– Charles Reznikoff

It is challenging to bring together the enemies in the world without hatred. Yet, I argue that refugees displaced from around the world and veterans from the US military are in the same boat, and that it serves the interests of both to begin to view each other as part of the same picture and to have the opportunity to talk, that such connection may serve to develop and foster the sort of tenderness between seeming “opposites” that is described in the poem above.

As a fifth semester Master of Social Work student from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, I am laboring to integrate the lessons about militarism I have learned. Serving as a not-for-credit intern at Quaker House in this late fall is a final and necessary step for me in this integration toward understanding the ways in which “our liberation is bound up… together” (Lilla Watson) and the ways in which we may work together to bring about change.

Context: My Experience

Two years ago, when I moved from Michigan to pursue this degree, I had no experience with refugees. My next year interning in refugee mental health began awkwardly. Walking into a room full of strangers learning English as a second language, I didn’t know how to relate. By year’s end, I found myself seated in a refugee couple’s living room, eating figs they themselves had grown and being treated as if I were their daughter.

I’m surprised at how much refugees have become a part of my heart. I currently have a part-time internship through which I organizationally support—long-distance via Skype and email—a team of South Sudanese refugee leaders driving technology-facilitated community change in refugee camps throughout northern Uganda. My view of life experiences faced by refugees has become clearer and more nuanced.

Experiences refugees face are represented for me by:

  • the woman who dutifully walked to English lessons and who tackled a many-legged bus journey through the North Carolina summer heat to weekly counseling appointments, to relate stories about a son killed for suspected association with the US military,

  • a woman mothering several small children, isolated from anyone speaking her language in a large apartment complex of diverse refugees, mourning separation from the in-person support of her family, now many expensive flights and visa challenges away,

  • a young woman worrying about close family members in distant resettlement camps who struggle with severe health problems and substandard care, wondering if they’ll make it to the US and thinking of them every day,

  • the male refugee entrepreneur who loses his sister to inadequate tuberculosis care in a northern Uganda refugee camp,

  • the refugee parents distressed that their young children wake up with bedbug bites every day. Refugees newly settled in the US are often accepted only in bottom rung apartments due to lack of a social security number and documented rental history, and

  • the former interpreter for US forces who lost family members to kidnapping and can’t access help with job-seeking and impending homelessness because his resettlement agency in the US has closed in honor of Veteran’s Day.

These stories resonate with me every day. Currently, by interning with Quaker House, I am learning more about what is experienced by those affiliated with the US military. Shadowing hotline calls with Steve and Lenore (Quaker House’s GI Rights Hotline counselors) I am learning more about the uniques pains and struggles associated with being a US military member.

Interconnections

US military members, refugees from wars in which the US has a role, and US civilians beyond these groups compose the same web. I have identified several ways in which this interconnection may be experienced similarly by refugee people and US military members.

Pain. Conflict comes with pain, particularly when conflict is not fruitfully resolved. Refugee people and military members bear the world’s pain disproportionately. We as humans struggle with our fear of each other as people, our desire to hoard resources and well-being, and our hopes to stave off vulnerability. Refugee and military-involved people may experience the pain related to this struggle acutely. It hurts to be separated from loved ones, to lose one’s home, and to witness violence and death.

Pain from militarism may manifest in the form of moral injury—violation of perceived “right action” by those in authority, or violation of perceived “right action” by oneself (Litz et al., 2009; Shay, 2014). With moral injury, refugees and military members might experience two sides of the same coin. Refugee people may have experienced those in military power acting in ways that violated the “right action” they would expect; military members may have been ordered to perpetrate misdeeds against their own senses of conscience.

Lack of awareness. The challenges faced by both refugee people and military members and families are hidden from view in ways that perpetuate and rationalize the status quo for those in power. Refugee experiences are rarely considered by most US civilians. Likewise, the lack of access to healthcare and veteran benefits and the racial and sexual discrimination that many military members experience remain unseen for most of the nonmilitary US population. Policymakers safe in their offices rarely brush up against the experiences of refugees and military members.

The experience of being caught up in a machine. “I don’t understand how people can just be in authority and just do something like that,” spoke one female military member who called about her rights. “I’ve already proved that the system is broken,” said a male serviceman. Refugee people and military members or veterans are human beings who find themselves subject to situations that exacerbate their powerlessness. Refugees become caught in a system bigger than themselves when forced by military authority to leave their homes. They are required to register with international organizations to receive a plot of land, food, and a temporary shelter, and they are subjected to the will of international governments to decide where they will go next. Disadvantaged people often take steps to empower themselves. For example, a service member may seek help from a congressperson to address a grievance; a refugee may pursue and secure an available job. However, even when such steps are taken, it is not from a position of full equality. For example, refugee professionals often cannot achieve certification in the US without years of retraining and high expense. Instead, refugees frequently take poultry processing jobs and hospitality positions at hotels in order to pay for housing and medical bills.

Lack of adequate funding. The rush of finding a job, the lack of funding for language learning and recredentialing, and (in states like North Carolina) the quick route to lack of medical coverage for adult refugees reflect inadequate funding allocated to deal with individual needs. Similarly, the US military’s lack of support including a tendency to classify service members’ health concerns as misbehaviors in ways that would lead to an other-than-honorable discharge (without benefits) helps the military trim costs.

Clarified perspective. Both refugee individuals and those associated with the US military have probably experienced a change in life that has transformed their values and ways in which they see the world. They have something to tell the rest of us about aspects of reality to which we are oblivious. Civilians in the US are part of the global equation impacting refugees and military members but usually experience less of and are thus less aware of warfare’s painful impact. US civilians might go about their lives, buying their groceries, sleeping soundly at night without considering the fear or dread experienced by those living exposed and strained existences in refugee camps. Experiences of peacefulness and safety are not themselves problematic—in fact, they should be the norm rather than the exception in the world. The trouble is that our seeming peacefulness and safety are built upon a military machine that outsources pain, justifies this pain as an enforcement of our freedoms, and feeds a tide of displacement and despair. Military members and refugees understand these dynamics more deeply than those of us not experiencing them up close. As such, they have something to share.

What Is Needed

Bring refugee and military member voices to the surface. If challenges experienced by refugees and military-involved families are understood by more people, then pain inflicted by US militarism will become harder to ignore. Paul Tinkerhess, a Quaker in Ann Arbor, MI, speaks about how all parts of a body need to hear each other’s pain. How else can we know how we need to adjust?

Hearing this pain can be overwhelming. When I began interning in refugee mental health, I experienced a period of disillusionment about building peace, then over time found a role in helping refugees directly and seeking to change relevant systems. The process of listening to pain is important. As Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, urges, those interested in social change must get “proximate” to the problem, close enough to hear.

Foster interconnection between impacted groups of people. It is important to provide opportunities for refugee and military individuals to speak and be heard by one another. These two parties know more about war than most other people. In my experience both refugees and military members often hope for peace, but in a way that is clear-eyed about realities. People in these groups may actually have motivation to work together and certainly have the knowledge to do so intelligently. How can we facilitate opportunities for this interconnection? The chance to understand the impact of militarism on one another and to address it together may help address moral injury as well.

Take responsibility. If we or those close to us have not been in the military or left home as refugees, we may have outsourced to others suffering that supports our lifestyles. It may be healthy to acknowledge this suffering belongs to us as much as to them. In my life, responsibility means learning more about military-industrial connections—how I can act on these and remove my participation—and figuring out how to bring individuals together in groups for productive conversation on these contentious issues. What does taking responsibility look like for you?

Find and nourish hope. It can be hard to work for change, especially on such dark, looming challenges as systemic militarism, without recharging one’s sense of hope. (As such, activists may choose to work toward “less formidable” goals). [1] While working to address entrenched issues, Dr. Ted Shaw, director of the UNC-CH Center for Civil Rights, proposes that hope may be found in our process and our actions, not in the result of which we actually dream. [2] Sometimes hope is found in working together, in seeing infinitesimal human-size changes we do make, in learning in our own ways what needs to be addressed, or in sharing that knowledge with others. Howard Zinn wrote of finding “the energy to act… at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”  May we be active and intelligent in our hope.

[1] Swanson, D. (Ed.). (2011). The military industrial complex at 50. Charlottesville, VA: eBookIt.com.

[2] Shaw, T. (2017) Activism in academia. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work Social Justice Lecture Series, Chapel Hill, NC.

Quaker House is committed to conscious, intentional, and consistent hope and action in confronting US militarization. We welcome your support and thank you for joining us in the ways that you are. Let us continue collaborating to address harms faced by military families and raise awareness toward the systemic demilitarization needed to improve health, safety, and well-being for both refugees and military-involved individuals and families. Feel free to comment with yiour suggestions regarding interconnections between refugees and military members and what you think needs to happen to bring about change.

With thanks, Claire Bates (Quaker House Intern, UNC-CH Master of Social Work & Graduate Certificate for International Peace and Conflict Resolution Certificate Candidate, Fall 2017; clairebates87@gmail.com).

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - blogs