Two Poems: One of Death, One of Life

I wrote an essay a couple of years ago expressing my views and feelings towards Veterans Day. I still hold those sentiments in my mind and soul as true.

At the end of my essay I emplaced Siegfried Sassoon’s World War One poem Suicide in the Trenches; which I vowed to read each Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day as Sassoon’s contemporaries, festooned with poppies on their lapels and overwhelmed by much dead in the ground and in their memories, would establish to mark the war to end all wars….

This year I read Suicide in the Trenches at our small Veterans for Peace Swords to Plowshares Memorial bell ringing service at the North Carolina State Capitol on Veterans Day. Here are Sassoon’s words, a more eloquent, concise and honest description of war I do not know:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

War and its primary companion, suffering, may take possession of your life, but by no means does war need to be in permanent claim of your mind and soul, by no means does war need to be the victor. Through love, through mercy and though kindness your soul and your mind may find forgiveness in yourself, and this, which is a process and a journey, is often enabled and emboldened by the grace of a stranger.

Such a stranger sent me a poem. The life war takes away, love, and its acts, can restore.

The Summer Day – Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So now I have two poems to read each Veterans Day. One to ensure those who have suffered never leave my purpose and my life, and the second, to remind me that this is my purpose and that this is my life.

Thank you Megan.

Recovering From the Darkness of PTSD After War

This is the second part of my interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. We cover a lot of issues in the conversation and this is probably the most personal I have ever been on camera in terms of speaking of my own issues. Much thanks to Amy and Democracy Now for giving me so much time to speak.

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In 2009, Matthew Hoh became the first State Department official to resign protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh was deployed twice to Iraq. In part two of our conversation, we speak with Hoh about what happened after he blew the whistle on the Afghan War and his long fight to recover from post-traumatic stress syndrome. On his website, Hoh writes: “In 2007, after my second deployment to Iraq, PTSD and severe depression took over my life. I began trying to drink myself to death. Thoughts of suicide became common until they were a near daily presence by 2011.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As President Obama announces more boots on the ground in Iraq, another 1,500, bringing the total, it’s believed, to about 3,000, with hundreds of bombing raids in Iraq and also Syria, we’re joined by Matthew Hoh. He is a former State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy there in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh served in Iraq. From 2004 to ’05, he worked with a State Department reconstruction and governance team. And from 2006 to ’07, he worked as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province. He’s now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He’s joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Matthew Hoh, welcome back to Democracy Now! for part two of our conversation. I wanted to ask you about the response to you as a whistleblower. At the time, you were the highest State Department official to resign over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. What happened to you after that?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, thanks for having me on again, Amy. You know, there was divisions within the Obama administration on the war in Afghanistan. And so, what I said about the war in Afghanistan—how I said our presence was fueling the insurgency, al-Qaeda had left there a long time ago, we were supporting a corrupt government in Afghanistan, our troops were dying for no good reason—many members of the administration believed, most importantly Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was our ambassador in Afghanistan, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And they both, to some degree, I believe, protected me from attack from within the U.S. government; however, from the military side, I did take some pressure. I do know that General Petraeus’s command in Tampa, Central Command, actually hired a strategic communications firm to actively discredit me. So, when I would appear on television, this firm would say—would send emails to producers or to newspapers to try and get me pulled off or not written about, basically saying, “This guy isn’t who he says he is. This guy doesn’t really”—

AMY GOODMAN: What was the firm, Matthew?

MATTHEW HOH: I don’t recall—the name of the—and here’s the great—why I kind of believe, Amy, karma exists. The name of the firm—I don’t believe the firm exists any longer. The name of the fellow who ran the firm was Duncan Boothby. And this was the gentleman who introduced Michael Hastings to General McChrystal in 2010. So I do believe in karma to a certain extent. The guy who was actively seeking to discredit me then turned and introduced Michael Hastings, who wrote the great book The Operators, whose Rolling Stone article shone a light on how General McChrystal and his staff actually operated, and so I do believe there is some karma. And in one of those things that, you know, you can’t—where truth is stranger than fiction, I know all this because Duncan Boothby told me himself. He introduced himself to me at a Christmas party in December of 2009, just walked right up to me and said, “You know, I hope you don’t take any offense to it, but I’m the guy who’s been discrediting you to the media.” And, you know, but that’s the way Washington, D.C., works, and that’s the way our senior military works.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did it mean? How did you see that manifest?

MATTHEW HOH: I did notice that I started to appear less and less on news programs. I know I had articles about me pulled from publications like The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. I know when I would appear on CNN, I was told that, you know, “You can be on, but there has to be someone to counter you, because you have a bias.” And they would sometimes put somebody on who was independent, an independent analyst, so to speak, who was actually in the pay of the Pentagon. So, it really was—it was very absurd, very Kafkaesque. I had a long series of interviews with Dan Rather, who was going to do a special on me, and he actually pulled it because he received pressure from the Pentagon not to do that. So it really was. It was really quite absurd, quite Kafkaesque. But it wasn’t surprising, because I had worked in Washington, D.C., I had been around senior levels, and I understood what I had gotten myself into. I understood the politics of it, and I understood the type of people that were involved in it.

And it further fueled my desire to work to end the wars, because it just showed—and this is what’s important to know for Veterans Day—our men and women who are serving overseas, who are killing, who are being killed, who are being maimed, who are coming home with these psychological wounds that—you know, as we spoke in part one, 22 veterans a day are killing themselves—they’re dying in support of people who are making policies, who are so selfish in their own concerns that they disregard the reality of what’s happening in these countries, disregard the reality of our presence, disregard the effects that it has on our troops. And so, that campaign against me, that, you know, putting up a Wikipedia page, a false Wikipedia page about me with all kinds of false information, those kinds of things, that really only fueled me to work harder to try and stop these wars, to try and get our soldiers home, and to try and end the suffering for millions of people in those war zones.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Wikipedia page, the fake Wikipedia page.

MATTHEW HOH: You know, all of a sudden I had a friend of mine text me and said—because, Amy, this was—I was a marine, and I worked for the government. Before 2009, the last time I had been in the news was in 1991 for high school track. So, I hadn’t—you know, this wasn’t anything I was used to, nothing my friends were accustomed to, that I was, you know, on the television or in the newspapers. And all of a sudden, my friend texts me one day, and she says, “You’re on—you’ve got a Wikipedia page,” and was shocked. And there was a Wikipedia page about me, and it just had a bunch of half-truths and mistruths. You know, just it had some general biographical information, but then the information went on to say how I wasn’t really working for the State Department, I made up my position, I didn’t have the experience I was attesting to—basically casting doubt on my credibility, basically casting doubt on who I said I was. It prominently featured—al-Qaeda had put a propaganda out one time where they took a clip of mine and edited it and put it into their propaganda video. It prominently featured that, and, you know, so basically hinting at, was I—what I was doing, was that helping al-Qaeda? You know, so, it was that type of thing. And it went back and forth, because there are some very nice people out there who edited it on my behalf without my asking. And it finally got to the point where I actually contacted Wikipedia and said, you know, “I’m the subject of this piece, and it has a lot of inaccuracies, and I’m tired of it, and can you just get rid of it?” And they did. They deleted it. And that hasn’t been a problem for a couple years. But that was one part of that, you know, campaign.

And I’ve seen it with other people, too. You certainly see it with other whistleblowers. Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis, who went to Congress with a report in February 2012 saying that, look, the war in Afghanistan is going very badly, the Afghan security forces are not ready to take control—all things that had been proven, in fact, since then—he was actively discredited by senior members of the Pentagon. They went after him behind the scenes to, you know, media executives. And then you’re seeing it to extreme lengths, of course, with whistleblowers like Peter van Buren, who wrote the book—who was a State Department official who wrote a book about his time in Iraq that the State Department did not like, and so they went after him, threatening him with legal action, threatening to take away his pension. Thomas Drake, of course, the NSA whistleblower, they trumped up charges, charged him with the Espionage Act. They actually—in Tom Drake’s case, the FBI raided his house, turned his house upside down, and they actually—he had documents there, work documents there, and in Tom Drake’s case, they actually retroactively classified the documents. So when Tom took those documents home, they weren’t classified, but after the FBI raided his house and they needed a reason to shut him up, to shut him down, to make an example of him, they retroactively classified the documents to say that he was spying. You know, and on and on. Of course, you have Chelsea Manning, you have Edward Snowden, you have a host of other whistleblowers out there, too, who have been actively campaigned against by the federal government, by the State Department, by the Pentagon. And it really is quite a shame. I mean, this president, President Obama, has persecuted whistleblowers to a greater extent than any previous president.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, I wanted to go to the issue, on Veterans Day, of your PTSD. In the first part of our discussion, we talked about, you know, what it means overall in the country. But I wanted to go back to that quote on your website, at MatthewHoh.com, where you wrote, quote, “In 2007, after my second deployment to Iraq, PTSD and severe depression took over my life. I began trying to drink myself to death. Thoughts of suicide became common until they were a near daily presence by 2011.” That’s what you wrote on your website. And I wanted to talk specifically about how you recovered. If you could talk about what you did dealing with PTSD, even when you realized you had it?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, you know, it first really hit me after my second deployment to Iraq, about four months after I was home. And it was like you read about or like you hear: There was this black wave that came over me. And at the darkest of times, I—I was always a big drinker anyway, but not in this sense. And it soon became where the only way I could survive, where the only way I could numb myself, the only medication that would make me be OK, where I could sleep, where I could kind of—where the pressure, the stress in my head was bearable, was by drinking. And soon that became my way of killing myself. It became a slow way to kill myself, you know. And, of course, one of the things with post-traumatic stress disorder and with alcohol abuse is that they fit one another. They reinforce one another. I like to describe post-traumatic stress disorder as, say, as if you have a bruise on your brain; when you water it with alcohol, it grows, and it takes over more of your brain. And that was absolutely the case.

And, I mean, here was something where there is a double standard, which I think most men and women in the military can identify with, where I used to stand in front of my marines and talk about these issues, but when it happened to me, I couldn’t get help. I wouldn’t get help. I tried to treat it myself. And this persisted until—through 2011. And by that point, as you say in that quote of mine, I was thinking of killing myself. And there was a plan, you know. And I think that is what’s frightening to a lot of us who go through this, is that—and when you relapse, when this is something you still struggle with. So as I still struggle with these issues, the frightening thing, Amy, is that when it comes or when you’re back in that spot, you pick up the plan from the same location. You know, you pick up from where you left it off. How are you going to handle letting your family know? Where are you going to do it at? What are you going to use? All those things are mapped out.

And so, basically, what happened in—beginning of 2012, I was in a relationship. We were living together, and it was just a nightmare for my ex-girlfriend. And she got us to go to counseling. And the second counseling session, the counselor said, “You know what? I think this is not about you guys. I think this is about you.” And fortunately, the counselor was a former sailor who had PTSD issues of his own, and I bonded with him. And I trusted him because he was a service—he was a veteran. He had gone through these issues. He knew what I was talking about. And he saved my life. His name’s Lenny Brisendine. He’s in Georgetown. And he saved my life. He got me to stop drinking. He got me to go to the VA, got me on medication, because at that point I had hit rock bottom, and it was really just one way or the other. And if it wasn’t for Lenny, if it wasn’t for my ex-girlfriend getting me into therapy, if it wasn’t for some great doctors down here at the VA in Raleigh, if it wasn’t for my family—I have tremendous support from my family—I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I mean, I am completely certain of that, that I wouldn’t have lasted another year. I would have killed myself—

AMY GOODMAN: For—

MATTHEW HOH: —because of—

AMY GOODMAN: For vets who are going through what you went through and what you continue to deal with, when you say that the therapist saved your life, what exactly did he do to get you to stop drinking, to go to the VA, to begin to take medication? When did it click for you?

MATTHEW HOH: I think it was—well, the clicking for me was when the one question he asked me was, “Tell me about your future,” and I said I had no future. And it was at that point I became self-aware, I believe, of what was really going on, even though I had been going through it for four years. I knew it was going on. I mean, my life was programmed around alcohol, the panic attacks, the breakdowns or the pressure. I mean, I knew what I was going through, but I didn’t care. I didn’t think there was any other choice for me. It was the only way I could deal with it. And so, sitting across from this man who had gone through the same thing himself, who opened himself up to me and who got me to admit a couple things about myself, all of a sudden it was something I could no longer ignore. And so, the importance about testimony in a case of what Lenny did, what others did, and then what I started to do then was I started to watch videos of other veterans who were going through the same issues, read about them, because what you find is you see yourself in them. You say, “Oh, my gosh, that’s exactly what I’m going through, and he’s saying he’s doing better now. Well, OK, let’s keep watching, or let’s turn the page and see what we need to do.”

I mean, there are a lot of things that go with PTSD, and also another component of this is what is called “moral injury,” which a lot of us suffer from, it is what I suffer from, which is different than PTSD but afflicts a lot of veterans. But there are a lot of components. We get ourselves into financial difficulties. We have intimacy issues. I mean, one of the hardest things for relationships is that veterans with PTSD, with moral injury, with these kinds of problems, will stop being intimate with their partners, and it destroys the relationship. And it’s certainly what was happening with me in my relationship. It’s a very difficult thing to talk about, very difficult thing to acknowledge, but it kills relationships. And then, once the relationship is gone, what keeps you from killing yourself is that you’re holding onto things that you have. So, for me, to be completely honest, one of the things that kept me alive was the fact that I was doing media, talking about the war. And so, I was afraid that if I killed myself, right, then those who were opposed to me would say, “Oh, you can’t listen to that guy. He ended up killing himself.” So you find these things to latch onto. And so, for a lot of veterans, it’s their relationship. And when that relationship goes, then there’s nothing left to hold onto. The distress is overwhelming. The pain is overwhelming. And so, the choice then is made that this is the only thing I can do to end my distress, to end my suffering. And unfortunately, as we noted before, 22—at least 22 veterans a day are making that choice.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Matthew Hoh, who’s a former Marine company commander in Iraq, talking about dealing with PTSD, as we move into Veterans Day. You know, the VA scandal continues to unfold. In the latest news out of the VA, Matt, they are saying that they’re considering disciplinary action against a thousand employees, as it struggles to correct systemic problems that led to long wait times for veterans, that led to falsification of records of the cover-up delays. That issue of long wait times is not just a matter of, oh, it’s inconvenient, you know, so someone has to wait a couple weeks—

MATTHEW HOH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —or couple months—actually, it might be a couple years. As you describe dealing with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, that could be a matter of life and death, as real as any disease someone is suffering from.

MATTHEW HOH: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And in fact, one of the issues with the wait times, the frustrations that you find in the VA—and let me be clear: In my, the VA I go to, I have had excellent care from the doctors and staff. They are truly wonderful, gifted people. But they work in a system that is just completely broken. When I moved down here to Raleigh a couple years ago, even though I was suicidal, even though I was being treated, it took me almost four months to see somebody in the VA down here, not because they didn’t care, not because they didn’t want to help, but because they are overwhelmed, they’re overburdened. The system is just broken. And so, what can happen is that if the veteran who is suffering from this has lost everything and he’s hitting that rock bottom and he’s finally going to the VA to help, and then he gets turned away or he gets frustrated, well, that’s going to make his situation worse. That’s going to make him or her more despondent. That’s going to make him feel as if there is going to be no end to this suffering. So, the option to kill himself is the best option for him. And it really is frightening how that does occur, how the system itself can contribute to these losses.

And again, as we mentioned in part one, there’s just been a serious, serious just managerial incompetence in the VA. Up until just a couple years ago, as we mentioned before, the VA wasn’t even collecting data on veteran suicides on a national level, and we’re still not collecting data on a completely national level. We still have 20-some-odd states that aren’t contributing to the database on veteran suicides. There is no way to make sure we’re capturing all veteran suicides, because only about 40 percent of veterans are registered with the VA. And if you ask why are only 40 percent of the veterans registered with the VA, I’ll tell you because the VA system has been a very frustrating, difficult and painful experience. I just finally—after about two-and-a-half years, I finally got my disability claim from the VA, and it’s completely wrong. I mean, I’ve been seeing a counselor for alcohol abuse for a couple years on a weekly basis, and the disability process in the VA said I didn’t have an alcohol abuse problem. So, it’s those kinds of things that I think turn people away, that chase people away, that don’t let veterans get help, because they get frustrated, they get sick over it, they throw their hands up. And then so they turn to what is working for them in the interim—alcohol, drugs—and unfortunately, that path more than likely ends up in suicide.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Matt Hoh, the definition of PTSD and what so many soldiers and veterans had to deal with for so long of even being categorized in that way, instead of being sent home with aspirin?

MATTHEW HOH: Yeah. So, with post-traumatic stress disorder, what it basically—and there’s a wide variety. This exists in the civilian world, too. Many people—survivors of sexual assault, survivors of accidents, survivors of abuse—they will all suffer post-traumatic stress disorder in a similar vein from veterans. I think post-traumatic stress disorder from warfare is a bit different, and I think there’s also a piece of this that is becoming more understood, better understood, this moral injury component, wherein that is, in your mind, the person you are did not do the things that you expected them to do. So, in my case, the moral injury is that I have guilt over things I did or guilt I failed to do. I didn’t live up to the expectations of myself in war. And when I come home, I now have to live with that. I now have to live that with this notion that I did things or I didn’t do things that I’m not morally OK with, that that’s not who I thought I was. So you have that destruction of your self-image. You have that destruction of the soul, basically.

And then, with post-traumatic stress disorder, you have basically, in some ways described as your fight-or-flight system is stuck open, that valve is stuck open, so you’re constantly in overdrive. So you’re constantly over-aware. You’re constantly reacting as if you’re still there. And this can take form in flashbacks, in dreams, in just a constant pressure, a constant stress that exists with you every day. And that then extends and breaks down your daily life. It breaks down your relationships. It breaks down your job performance. It breaks down your finances. And so, it has an effect that then radiates out. And because you’re not getting help, because maybe you’re turning to alcohol or you’re turning to drugs, it then cycles on itself, and it just continues to build, until the point comes that you hit rock bottom. And then it’s either one way or the other. And unfortunately, way too many of us are choosing suicide as opposed to getting help.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, would you do things differently, as you reflect back on your life now, from being a Marine Corps commander, a company commander in Iraq, to serving in Afghanistan as a State Department official, quitting and what you’ve done since then?

MATTHEW HOH: I don’t think so, Amy. You know, I’d like to say maybe, but I don’t think so. I think I’m at the place now because of the decisions I made, whether they were the right decisions or the wrong decisions. You know, I’ve—I actually saw a great—I’m 41, you know, so I’m going through what all of us who are turning in their forties are going through of “How did this happen to me?” you know? But I saw this little bumper sticker, and it said, “Life begins at 40. Everything before then is research.” And I think that’s absolutely true. I think that’s actually the case. I mean, that’s life and the journey we’re on. And it’s a constant journey. I’ve got another 40-some-odd years to make up for things maybe I did wrong, for mistakes I made, to improve upon things or to do things well again. And so, I think that’s the way I like to view it as, rather than looking back and saying, “I would have done this differently or that differently,” because I can’t honestly say I would have.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, Fallujah, Friday, it was the 10th anniversary of the second battle of Fallujah, where I think it was the bloodiest battle for U.S. troops. Something like a hundred died.

MATTHEW HOH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Not clear how many Iraqis died. Now the Islamic State, ISIS, has control of Fallujah.

MATTHEW HOH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on this?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, and they’ve been—since January, there’s been a lot of fighting in Fallujah. And Fallujah itself has never been entirely secure, particularly these last few years, the Iraqi government. But what you’re seeing is sectarian fighting. You’re seeing Sunni versus Shia. So, in January of this year, the people of Fallujah had basically had enough with the Shia government. They felt they were being preyed upon. They felt like they were being oppressed. And with the Islamic State, they have been fighting the Iraqi government, the Shia government, for control since then.

One of the things that’s important, I think, for folks listening and watching to be aware of is that this violence in Iraq is not new. It didn’t just happen again in the summer. Last year, almost 10,000 people were killed in bombings and shootings and in violence in Iraq, and this year, of course, it’ll be probably more than double that. So, it is. I mean, you look at it in the sense of 10 years ago, when we launched that operation in Fallujah, it was the bloodiest campaign of the war. Thousands were killed. Thousands were wounded. Horrible, horrible fighting. The city was destroyed, to a certain degree. And I think it’s an important lesson. I think it shows the mistake of trying to achieve policy goals with violence. By somehow achieving victory in the short term, you make sure you don’t achieve any stability or any peace in the mid or the long term.

And I think, too, the repercussions of the fighting in Fallujah from 10 years ago, of course, are still being seen now, because they’re still fighting. But also, too, as well, we have very severe concerns for the public health of the people in Iraq because of the depleted uranium that we used. Depleted uranium is very dense, and so we use it in our munitions, in our tank gun rounds and in our—in other munitions that we have, because it basically works so well when you’re trying to kill. But the problem is, is after you use it, it sits in the ground, and that uranium sinks into the ground and into the water supply. And now, these years afterwards, we now see very horrible incidence of cancer, of birth defects, of women bearing still-born babies. And so, not just do we have this legacy that’s still alive—the fighting is still going on, people are still being killed every day, the Islamic State is beheading people, the Iraqi government is shelling buildings, including schools and hospitals—but you have this, even if there was stability, even if there was peace, the people of Iraq would be suffering because their groundwater, their land is contaminated, and their children are dying because of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And the chemical exposure Iraqis face, and also U.S. soldiers, your response to the Pentagon admitting that 600 American servicemembers since 2003 have reported to military medical staff members they believe they were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, the Pentagon failing to realize the scope of the reported cases or [offer] adequate tracking and treatment to those who may have been injured, the Pentagon says. This was a big exposé in The New York Times.

MATTHEW HOH: Mm-hmm. Yes, I mean, certainly when I was there, we found them. I remember reading a report that a unit would find old chemical weapons shells, you know, and so the explosive ordnance disposal guys would have to go there and take care—and that’s one of the reasons why normal troops were not supposed to blow up any old Iraqi shells that they found, because they might be chemical rounds. I mean, this was widely known within the troops fighting over there that there were these old chemical munitions laying around. It was reported. And so, this idea that somehow the Pentagon is just realizing it now or that it wasn’t adequately reported is a lie.

And I think it falls into play with other aspects of how the Pentagon and our government has conducted itself over time. I mean, certainly the easiest and the clearest example is Agent Orange. I mean, Agent Orange was a defoliant we used in Vietnam to strip the leaves off of the jungle. It was assured to everybody—our troops and the people of Southeast Asia—that it was not going to be a problem. And, of course, you know, go over to the VA hospital, and it’s full of veterans suffering from the effects of that in terms of cancer, as well as, if you visit Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia, they are suffering the same.

So this notion that somehow the Pentagon didn’t know about it, that they didn’t understand it, it wasn’t being reported properly, is a complete lie. I’m just grateful that they are actually addressing it now, and hopefully those 600—and it may be more—servicemembers who were exposed to it, hopefully they had been receiving adequate treatment throughout this time and it’s not just that they’re going to their first doctor’s appointment for this this week.

AMY GOODMAN: And in Afghanistan, that’s the country you were where you quit the State Department. The latest news from The Washington Post, bombers targeted Afghanistan’s police, killing at least 10 officers and a civilian in two separate attacks in the latest sign of growing violence in the country. The attacks came one day after a suicide bomber infiltrated the heavily fortified police headquarters in the capital, Kabul, and blew himself up, killing a senior police official and wounding several others. We’ve talked a lot about Iraq. What about Afghanistan?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, Afghanistan, you know, unfortunately for the Afghan people, they’ve seen violence increase every year. Violence is worse now than it was in 2009 when President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan. You’ve had a series of fraudulent elections in Afghanistan. This last one, the presidential election of this year, was so fraudulent, they couldn’t even release the numbers from it, and basically they had to create an extra constitutional position for—so that both candidates would accept victory, and you wouldn’t have a broadening of the civil war in Afghanistan. Basically, Secretary Kerry had to say, “You’re going to do this, in order for us to keep giving you the money.” And I think that’s what people should take away from it, is how much influence our money has in these conflicts, how they prop up corrupt governments, these kleptocracies.

The only thing that has prospered in Afghanistan since 2009 has been the drug trade. Every year, the poppy crops, the marijuana crops are larger than they were the previous year. And I should counter that with saying also, too, the Taliban have prospered, as well, because the Taliban are actually larger, stronger, more capable than they were in previous years. Every year, they grow in size, and you could see as reflected in the numbers of attacks they launch, IEDs they put in the ground, the number of police or soldiers they killed.

So, Afghanistan is in a very, very difficult position. The civil war is ongoing. The Taliban are in a position of power, where they can negotiate when they want to. The government is incredibly corrupt. There is no economy to speak of. And I think the Afghans will unfortunately have to suffer for quite a long time until stability comes there. They’ve been fighting for as long as I’ve been alive, or at least almost as long; they’ve been fighting since the mid-’70s. And so, I think, unfortunately, the Afghans are going to have to suffer and continue to suffer. And I think it should be a lesson on the limits of American power, what we can achieve and what we should try to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, on Sunday, former President George W. Bush appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation to talk about a book he had written about his father. The host, Bob Schieffer, asked him about a statement he makes in his book regarding his decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

BOB SCHIEFFER: You write in the book, when you decided to send troops into Iraq, it was not to finish what your dad had started.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. There are very few defensive moments of the book, and that happens to be one. I guess I was just responding to kind of the gossip that tends to work around the political circles, that clearly he had only one thing in mind, and that was to finish the job his father did, because my dad decided not to go into Baghdad after routing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And the reason why is that wasn’t the mission he stated. And so, I went in there as a result of a very changed environment because of September the 11th. And the danger we were concerned about was that the weapons would be put into the hands of terrorist groups that would come and make the attacks of 9/11 pale in comparison.
AMY GOODMAN: That was George W. Bush. Matthew Hoh, your response?

MATTHEW HOH: It’s amazing, Amy. I mean, the president continues to lie about the Iraq War. In that clip there, he references 9/11. The Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11. That’s been proven beyond a doubt. He references the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was going to give to the terrorists to attack us, which didn’t exist. And it’s just—you know, I’m at a loss for words, because I had not heard that until now, and so I’m at a loss for words what to say about that, how insane it is that that is the man who was the president of the United States, that’s the man who was on Face the Nation, that’s the man who is seen, to some degree, as a kingmaker, in terms of pushing his brother to run for president, as well, and that a large percent of this country, while they will put the yellow ribbon on their cars, while they’ll give a standing ovation to the vet without legs at a baseball game, while they’ll all gladly take Veterans Day off to go shopping, won’t hold a man responsible for his actions that has killed thousands, wounded hundreds of thousands—and one of the things we don’t talk about a lot is the number of traumatic brain injuries in this country from the wars. We have about 250,000 soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries from the war. And so, this dissonance, the absurdity that exists in this country that President Bush is able to say such things, and then for the Face the Nation host, Bob Schieffer, who’s been doing that job for 20-some-odd years, to not kick him off the show for outright lying and for being so disrespectful to those who died over there for that mistake, it’s just—again, I’m at a loss for words.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Matthew Hoh, as the veterans’ tributes begin for Veterans Day, what do you think would be the greatest tribute to veterans, as a veteran yourself?

MATTHEW HOH: I think the greatest tribute would be, to tie into what I was just saying, is some form of accountability, some form of holding responsible those who have made mistakes. You know, I only served 10 years in the Marines, but I’ve had friends of mine who have served 20 or 30 years, and they’ve spent half that time in the Middle East, and we’ve all had friends die. We’ve all seen people in Iraq and Afghanistan and other locations suffer, and that carries with us. And I think that’s one of the issues that we face, is that there has been no accountability, there has been no justice. These wars have been failures. They’ve been done for just reasons of malfeasance, of just reasons that seem to be unknown or you don’t want to understand what the actual reasons were. And so, I think the best thing that could happen for veterans is some form of accountability for these wars, people being held responsible, from both parties. You know, the Democrats are just as complicit in these wars as the Republicans are.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, thanks so much for being with us, former State Department official who resigned in protest of the war in Afghanistan, resigned from his post there over U.S. policy in September 2009. Before that, he served in Iraq; from 2004 to ’05, worked with a State Department team; from 2006 to ’07, worked as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province; now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, speaking to us from his home state of North Carolina in Raleigh. Thanks so much.

MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Individual Outreach

A veteran and counselor in upstate NY sent me this video he made as part of his outreach to help veterans and service members as they struggle with their own personal issues and sufferings inside their heads and souls from war.

It is this type of outreach, this type of effort, that serves to assist veterans in finding help, alleviating their suffering and regaining their lives.

Thank you Roland.

Brief Thought on Faith

A very kind stranger inquired about my faith and my loss of it. My response to her was something I wanted to share, as that is the intent of this blog and it contains far too little of that kind of discussion. Please feel free to share your thoughts, your experiences or where you are with your faith.

I lost my faith a long time ago. In college, over twenty years ago. It was winter time. I think 1993. Of course it was complicated why I lost my faith, but I think if I had to summarize it, it was because what I saw of the world, of institutions and of people, did not measure up to what I believed my faith encompassed and required.

I saw the hypocrisy of organized religion and the hypocrisy of the actions of the religious. I saw that hypocrisy in myself too. I viewed and experienced my faith primarily through the structures of organized religion and found such a relationship to be restrictive and negative. Organized religion ran hard against the realities of life, both the joys and the sorrows, and so I rejected religion and chose life. I have to admit James Joyce had quite an influence on me :).

But now, after living nearly two decades without faith, living a full life, with many joys and much suffering, particularly witnessing the suffering of others, I am finding that my rejection of my faith was wrong. I am certainly anti-institution and I see quite clearly the hypocrisy of the religious, but I am now understanding the teachings of Jesus and Buddha to be individual teachings and through that I am discovering and enjoying an intimate and personal relationship with the Father, as well as an appreciation and desire for the path to Enlightenment.

The wars had nothing to do with the loss of my faith, as I had lost it over a decade before. The wars did further strangle my soul and they ensured the impossibility within my mind of any connection to or any thought of the spiritual or to Truth (big “T” truth). With healing and with recovery, through the help of many: friends, family and strangers; professional health care providers, fellow veterans and kind strangers; I have come back to faith.

Or maybe, I haven’t. Maybe I have come to understand something I never did, something I never truly understood or experienced. That faith, that understanding and acceptance of something greater than you and this world, exists as a personal relationship not bound or ruled by man-made dictates or organizations.

What I do know is that my life is better with faith and that I have a purpose in my life as a result of my suffering, as a result of these wars, rather than in spite of them.

Thank you to Angela for her question and for prompting me to reflect.

Moral Injury with Pete Dominick

I had the chance to discuss moral injury, PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse and suicidality, all the things that makes a veteran’s life so full ;), with my friend Pete Dominick on his show on Sirius/XM. Helpfully, we had an Air Force Combat Psychiatrist call in to lend his expertise and observations. Please take a listen:

 

 

Tattoo as Therapy and Testimony

It’s still a little red and raw in this photo, but here is my new tattoo:

IMG_5131

When I worked reconstruction and, because of the very large amounts of cash I possessed, conducted political efforts in Iraq in 2004, my chief engineer, an Iraqi about my age, very bright and my friend, devised a seal for our operations. The Iraqi date palm with two crossed shovels or a crossed shovel and a hammer, I can’t clearly remember. Symbolic of rebuilding and hope in a new Iraq, the reality of  what came was destruction and horror. So an ax is more appropriate and a blood drop or a tear drop, I’m not sure which, is necessary.

I have no idea if my friend is still alive and certainly I know too many who are no longer living or whose lives in Iraq have been subjugated and imprisoned by terror and suffering. Ten years later and it seems to be all that matters to me.

Others have done it and say it helps, so by writing what is inside of me on my body, telling essentially who I am and what haunts me, I hope to find some relief and keep testimony with the broken and shattered lives of people who were my friends and, more importantly, believed in what we had promised them and have had to live with what we actually delivered to them.

Thanks to Ray Alexander at Blue Flame Tattoo in Raleigh for the design, the tattoo work and the therapy.

Peace

 

Robin Williams

When I was a kid, one of the greatest moments for me, as an 8 or 9 year old boy, was to be able to watch Mork and Mindy. Robin Williams’ antics were eye-opening. His comedy, his goofiness and his sensitivity transcended anything I’d seen and, as I look back and reflect, I realize what an influence he was on me. John Ritter, in his role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, with his physical, silly humor, had a similar influence on me. Sadly, both men have now passed.

Robin Williams was, of course, well known and appreciated not just for his comedic talent, but for the compassion and empathy he could elicit in his dramatic roles. My friend, Pete Dominick, himself a stand-up comedian, explains that a good comic draws his ability to make people laugh through compassion, through an understanding of suffering, hardship, isolation; through those very things that allow a dramatic actor to so affect his audience.

While Robin Williams had certainly transmitted tenderness, sympathy and humanity in prior roles, such as Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, The Fisher King and Dead Poets Society, it was his role, in 1994, in NBC’s cop drama Homicide, that has always affected me the most. As Robin’s character, a man whose wife has just been murdered, leaving behind two small children, sits on a playground swing, he asks to hold a detective’s pistol. The look of anguish on Robin’s face, the frustration, the sorrow, the rage, as he begs for the weapon is tempered by his words as he assures the detective he won’t do anything stupid, he just wants to feel that power. In his words and body/facial language I’ve always felt how trapped the man was. Trapped between the overwhelming grief and sorrow of his loss, the anger and desire for justice towards his enemy, and the frightening and paralyzing understanding of now being a father of two motherless children, I’ve often thought about that role and that performance. I was 21 at the time and I can see, now, how that performance taught me so much about grief, anger, love, frustration and obligation. No one is two dimensional, nobody is a cardboard cut-out of emotions, and none of us live a scripted life with the solutions and remedies readily available for our afflictions and torments.

But this post is not meant as another tribute to a great actor, and as many people feel towards those on-screen giants, a friend. It is rather to admit, which I suspect many of my fellow veterans and travelers in our post-war PTSD, depression, alcoholic and morally injured lives also feel: the terror that even though we have it together today, even though we may be managing our illnesses, taking our medications, going to therapy, forgoing booze, avoiding triggers and making our lives worthy of others’ death and suffering by living lives of meaning and purpose, that it all may crash out from underneath us. For although those of us in recovery live our lives as if we are in new homes and new structures, the reality is that the floor of the structure is weak, and in some cases rotted. Constant attention, upgrade and maintenance is required to avoid collapse and our falling through, again, into an abyss, that deep dark hole with its rock bottom, we had successfully crawled out of.

Robin Williams fell through. I’d be lying if I haven’t thought many times this week that the same may happen to me in five, ten or twenty years.  It’s a terrifying and haunting demon. By sharing this fear, I hope to exorcise it.

PTSD, Depression and Moral Injury are hope-destroyers. Alcohol and drugs their armaments. The disease is insidious and brilliant. If it destroys hope, then there is not much reason to remain in recovery.  I feel like I should offer some form of chippy or up-beat affirmation at this point, but that would be a lie. Living, by fighting through these issues, is the only thing we can do.

Rest in peace Robin. Thank you for all you did for us. I’m sorry your floor fell through.

“Bonfire at Midnight”

A good and dear friend of mine, Fareed, who had a great deal of influence in pushing me to address the spiritual desert, or maybe it was a wasteland, I was in, started me on reading the poems of the 13th century Sufi scholar and mystic, Rumi. I am sure many of you are familiar with Rumi’s works, if you are not, I encourage you to give his writings a read. I have found quite a connection with Rumi’s poetry, so much that I now keep a book of daily readings of Rumi’s next to my bed. Please don’t ask how often I am dutiful and consistent in my reading though… 😉

What has been most jarring to me, as I get to know Rumi, has been the sense of meandering, the sense of resignation, the sense of spiritual and emotional homelessness I find in his poems. I identify with those lost and lonely feelings, but I am reassured by Rumi’s confidence in the journey he is on and the courage he possesses, because of the strength provided by something greater than him and by his companion Shams, who was a light of mindfulness, peace and friendship.

Now I have many Shams in my life; yes that is a cheesy thing to say, but it is true. My progress forward is a testament to their strength more than mine, just as Rumi found his strength and confidence in Shams.

But to one of his poems.

The other night I was grabbed ahold by the first stanza of Rumi’s “Bonfire at Midnight”:

A shout comes out of my room

where I’ve been cooped up.

After all my lust and dead living

I can still live with you.

You want me to.

You fix and bring me food.

You forget the way I’ve been.

Was that not me? A life of lust and dead living? And is not the acceptance and forgiveness of me, by friends and family alike, the core and foundation of my recovery? Was not the fear of not receiving such acceptance and forgiveness the terror that kept me alone with alcohol as my only friend? Is not acting and living upon that acceptance and forgiveness the instrument that has resuscitated my soul and gifted me once more with a future?

Is such knowledge of that acceptance and forgiveness not a Bonfire at Midnight for me? Is it not a beacon to my soul and mind of a clear and sound determinant of life, peace and hope?`

What I love so much about art, be it written word or image, is the transfer of someone’s emotion, someone’s story, someone’s fear, affection, despair, joy, horror, beauty…someone’s life through centuries, societies and cultures to another person, who in turn, understands and recognizes himself in the artist’s message. About 800 years ago Rumi wrote the words to a “Bonfire at Midnight”. Today, half a world from Rumi’s land, in an age that would appear fantastical and magical to him, I share in Rumi’s joy and appreciate his gratitude.

There is something bigger than me in my life. There are also many Shams in my life.  I have no doubt today, on Thanksgiving, as to where my thankfulness lies.

Peace to you all and Happy Thanksgiving.

“Am I Taking Crazy Pills? It Really Says That!?”

That’s what my friend and fellow Marine, Joe, said a few months ago when I sent him the conclusion from a Department of Veterans Affairs study on veteran suicides that read:

“Killing experiences are not routinely examined when assessing suicide risk. Our findings have important implications for conducting suicide risk assessments in veterans of war.”

Seriously.

The VA’s sole purpose is to provide care to our Nation’s veterans due to veterans’ unique circumstances and experiences. How can the VA have not included “killing experiences” as part of suicide risk assessments of veterans? It is no wonder that at least 22 veterans are killing themselves each day, with 22 a day most likely being an underestimate as it is based on partial, incomplete and non-uniform reporting from only 21 states, or that more than 60% of veterans are not registered with the VA.

If your Thanksgiving travels, the weather or your family haven’t made you drive your head through the wall yet, then this VA study will.