Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"Semper fi"?

Not hardly. Not if the wounds you suffer are to your heart and to your soul:

Denial in the Corps by Kathy Dobie, from The Nation

Marine Lance Cpl. James Jenkins is buried in the same New Jersey cemetery that he used to run through on his way to high school, stopping at the Eat Good Bakery to get two glazed doughnuts and an orange juice before heading off to class. When his mother, Cynthia Fleming, visits his grave, she looks over the low cemetery wall at not only the bakery but the used-car lot where James used to sell Christmas trees during the winter and the nursing home where he worked every summer and says, “Lord, son, you’re on your own turf.” James, who died at 23, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery; the owners told Cynthia they’re proud to have him there.

During his short career as a Marine, Corporal Jenkins received many commendations recognizing his “intense desire to excel,” “unbridled enthusiasm” and “unswerving devotion to duty.” It was for heroic actions performed during a fifty-five-hour battle with the Mahdi militia in Najaf that Jenkins was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. The fighting, which began on the city streets in August 2004 and moved into the Wadi al Salam Cemetery, was ferociously personal. Marines and militiamen were often only yards apart, killing one another at close range. When the battle was over, eight Americans and hundreds of militiamen were dead.

After that tour, his second in Iraq, Jenkins could barely sleep. When he did, the nightmares were horrible. He was plagued by remorse and depression, unable to be intimate with his fiancée, run ragged by an adrenaline surge he couldn’t turn off.

Back at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton the following January, Jenkins took to gambling, or gambling took to him; he became addicted to blackjack and pai gow, a fast-moving card game where you can lose your shirt in a minute. The knife-edge excitement felt comfortingly familiar. Jenkins went into debt, borrowing thousands of dollars from payday loan companies. Busted for writing bad checks, he was locked up in the Camp Pendleton brig that spring pending court-martial. In the months that followed, he was released, locked up and released again. He spoke often of suicide. The Marines never diagnosed his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When his mother called his command seeking help, Jenkins’s first sergeant, who had not served in Iraq, told Fleming he thought James was using his suicidal feelings to his advantage. “I have 130 Marines to worry about other than your son,” she recalls the sergeant saying. When his command decided to lock him up a third time, James Jenkins ran.

On September 28, 2005, eight months after returning from Iraq, Jenkins found himself cornered in the Oceanside apartment he shared with his fiancée. A deputy sheriff pounded on the front door, while a US Marshal covered the back. The young man with the “intense desire to excel” decided he could not go back to the brig or get an other-than-honorable discharge. He would not shame his family or have his hard-won achievements and his pride stripped away. And he was in pain. “He said, ‘I can’t even shut my eyes,’” his mother says, recalling one of his calls home that month. “He said, ‘I killed 213 people, Mom.’ He said, ‘I can’t live like this.’ He said, ‘Everything I worked for is down the drain,’ and he was crying like a baby.” While the officers waited for his fiancée to open the door, Jenkins shot himself in the right temple

The rest here. Prepare to be angry if you read it. Really. Angry. The outrage I felt after reading this piece made my heart race. What had been a good day was spoiled. The excitement I had felt on Tuesday over the primaries evaporated into a seething rage. I felt sick. Physically sick. It got my acid reflux all in a mess.

As I mentioned a while back, I have a former student who is a Marine, who is due to ship out to Iraq this month. And we just found out that another former student has just signed up. With the Marines.

When soldiers returned from the Civil War with what we know call post-traumatic stress disorder, their condition was referred to as “melancholy.” After the First World War, the doctors called it “shell shock,” and they knew it was caused by the horrors of war in the trenches. Some of those soldiers actually received some forms of treatment. World War Two? “Battle fatigue.” Many of that generation just dealt with their nightmares and flashbacks on their own, through sleepless nights, ruined marriages, alcoholism. It was only after Vietnam, with advances in psychiatry and psychology and an enlightened culture that physicians finally realized that what happens to those who serve in combat is a disorder, a mental illness, something that needs to be diagnosed and treated. Those who suffer from this condition are ill: they are sick. They are patients, not “slackers” or “malingerers” or “losers.”

It is shameful - if not criminal - that the Marine Corps, which so prides itself on espirit de corps and teamwork, which sells itself to young people as being the best of the best, the “few and the proud,” can treat its own members in such a disgracefully shabby fashion. They have turned back the clock over one hundred years. Even those who tried to nurse Johnny Reb and Billy Yank back to health were more compassionate and empathetic than the callous, cold, heartless excuses for human beings who so wrongly dealt with the young men in this article.

Rather than wasting time looking into which teams might have "illegally" videotaped the practice sessions of what other teams in the National Football League, or which over-paid, over-exposed baseball players might have used “performance-enhancing” drugs, the United States Senate ought to be investigating how America’s elite fighting force mistreats and abuses its own troops. How it ignores them at best, misdiagnoses them and cuts them off from benefits as a matter of routine policy, and, at worst, leaves them adrift, abandoning them to lives of isolation, addiction, and madness, to die at their own hands, all the while denying any complicity or responsibility for their fate. And then disrespecting their families when they have the temerity to try to get to the truth.

Read this article. But don't just be angry about it. Print out a copy. Photocopy that copy. Share this. Leave it around, in doctors' offices, on the seat on the bus, in the pew at your house of worship. And be sure to show it to any young person you might know who might be considering enlisting in the military.

Show them the truth. “Always faithful”? Not to those who serve.

They just get thrown out with the trash.

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