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.
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.
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:
It’s still a little red and raw in this photo, but here is my new tattoo:
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.
“All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses…” — Osama bin Laden
On the last day of March, in 2004, four American contractors were ambushed and killed in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah. Mutilated and immolated by a mob, their remains were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Barely a month later, in May, Nicholas Berg, a young American who had traveled to Iraq looking for work and had been captured, was beheaded.
Videos of the swinging American bodies and Berg’s execution were posted online and aired hourly on cable television. Americans were horrified and shocked. Operation Iraqi Freedom was unraveling. With this graphic confirmation of barbarity and terror President Bush reacted forcefully, desperate to demonstrate American resolve, strength and revenge.
U.S. Marines attacked twice into Fallujah, in April and then again in November 2004. In some of the worst fighting of the war, large parts of the city were destroyed, thousands killed and the majority of the city displaced. Throughout Iraq, American forces went on the offensive, attempting to stamp out “terrorists” by launching greater and more violent operations than had been seen since the invasion.
This military action, which was quite successful in sheer numbers of Iraqis killed or interned in detention camps, backfired as the often arbitrary, uncontrollable and escalatory nature of violence, as so happens in war, further enflamed hatred of the foreign occupation and led to greater Iraqi support, directly and indirectly, to the insurgency. This, in turn, strengthened al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as al-Qaeda’s broader global narrative of fighting “Crusaders” and defending Muslims. When the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos added to this narrative, thousands of outraged Muslim men traveled to Iraq to join al-Qaeda’s cause and fight the Americans.
Alongside this increased military action, the U.S. accelerated the transfer of “sovereignty” to the Iraqis through an inept political process that replaced the incompetent American-led Coalition Provisional Authority with a corrupt network of mostly Shia expatriate Iraqis. This interim government in Baghdad, full of Iraqis whose chief qualification was that they spoke English and dressed in Western suits, oversaw a political vacuum that deepened the chaos.
Shia groups battled other Shia groups for power and money in Baghdad; Sunnis and Shias massacred one another; minorities, such as Turkmens and Christians, fled Baghdad; the Kurds smartly walled themselves off in their homeland in North Iraq; and everyone who was not on the United States payroll fought the Americans, primarily young American men, many really boys, who were mired in a rising and bloody civil war in which they were ordered to pick winners and losers, with the barrel of a rifle, in a society and land they did not understand. With that, 500,000 Iraqis were killed, millions wounded and maimed, and one in eight Iraqis were displaced forcibly from their homes in a civil war that is still raging ten years later.
Now, in 2014, with the ghastly beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, America is poised to make the same mistakes. While escalating American airstrikes and sending more troops to Iraq may assuage the fear and horror affecting the American public, and motivating America’s politicians, acting on those feelings will ensure greater conflict and loss.
The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, requires the United States to serve as a villain in order for the Islamic State to receive manpower, logistics and financial support from Sunni Muslim communities. Additionally, an American military re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War in support of Shia and Kurdish factions, without lasting and serious political concessions from Baghdad towards Sunni grievances, will worsen the same political disenfranchisement and sense of existential danger that has pushed the Sunnis to align with the Islamic State. In the short-term American bombs may hurt the Islamic State, but in the long-term it is what they need and want.
The Islamic State is a parasite of war. Its members and its narrative need war for their personal, organizational and ideological validation and success. That is why the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to take the war away from them. Abandoning support to all sides in the conflict, including oil sales from the Iraqi government and American support for the oil fields seized by the Kurds this summer, will put all sides of the Iraqi Civil War at a disadvantage and force concessions in order to meet Sunni grievances. Achieving a permanent political solution will divorce the Islamic State from the Sunni community. Notions of American support to a Shia and Kurdish invasion of Sunni lands, again, will only strengthen the Islamic State by giving them the Sunni population’s support they require and by feeding into the Islamic State’s members own romantic visions of their historical and divine place defending Islam.
In our rush to return to war in Iraq we are playing into the Islamic State’s hands, just as we played into the hands of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and into Osama bin Laden’s larger strategy with our morally disastrous Global War on Terror, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
After tens of thousands of American dead and wounded, with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killing themselves at rates three times greater than their civilian peers, and with a total cost of the wars projected at six trillion dollars, it is safe to say that Bin Laden’s goals, with respect to the above quote, have largely been achieved.
We seem likely to take the bait again.
Update 8/21/2014: Salon published this today.
My friend Leighton Woodhouse interviewed me for the Huffington Post on the current crisis in Iraq:
Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq before being stationed in Afghanistan as a high-ranking foreign service officer. In 2009, Hoh resigned in protest from the State Department over the U.S.’ misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Leighton Woodhouse, who interviewed Hoh, writes for Capital & Main.
Note: This interview was conducted before the Obama administration announced that it would not send in ground troops to evacuate refugees on Mount Sinjar.
You’ve written that sending U.S. troops back into Iraq, bombing the Islamic State, or otherwise engaging militarily in Iraq’s civil war may serve to salve guilty American consciences, but will only exacerbate the country’s violent divisions in the long run. With that said, there remain thousands of Yazidi and other non-Sunni refugees stranded and besieged on a mountain, with no access to food and water other than by airlift, dying of starvation, dehydration and sunstroke. Should it prove to be the case that the deployment of U.S. ground troops is the only means available to carry out an evacuation, is there a valid distinction to be made between that kind of an emergency, humanitarian rescue mission and out-and-out U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Could this be a situation in which some limited use of U.S. military force in the area is justified, and if not, what is the humanitarian alternative?
I think that distinction can be made in theory or in debate, but in practice I don’t believe it is possible to put American troops into the middle of the Iraq Civil War without supporting one side against another in the conflict. If our troops go into Iraq they will be picking winners and losers in a society they do not understand and in a war that is amazingly complex. This was the genesis of this conflict in 2003. The United States has quite a history of U.S. forces being utilized by one side against another in foreign civil wars, and that utilization only widens and deepens the conflict. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and, of course, our nearly nine-year-long occupation of Iraq are all examples. Further, putting foreign troops into Iraq will only help serve the interests of ISIS by lending credence to their propaganda and recruiting narratives.
The plight of the Yazidis should not be seen either as a singular tragic event, but rather as the most recent of a vicious cycle of violence that has been ongoing in Iraq. Estimates are of half a million dead, millions injured or maimed, and upwards of four million people, out of a population of 32 million, or 1 in 8, have been forcibly driven from their homes since 2003. So, without some political solution that will stop the cycle of violence, the Yazidis will soon be replaced in the archives of Iraqi horrors by another ethnicity or demographic. A long-term solution is what is needed, not something that is short-term and designed to score domestic political points or adhere to some form of foreign policy ideology or doctrine.
Finally, it is very important to separate and not conflate our humanitarian mission with the military mission. The United States is the wealthiest nation on Earth and we should help in a humanitarian manner whenever we can. However, in this case our military assets were not used to protect the Yazidis, but to protect territory that the Kurds have taken control of over the last two months. Since June the Kurds have increased their territory by 40 percent, including capturing the major oil city of Kirkuk. Northern Iraq is rich with oil and natural gas and what is playing out is a battle for these resources by the Kurds and Sunnis in the wake of the departure of Baghdad’s control and army. In effect we have become the Kurdish Air Force in protecting the gains the Kurds have made since this crisis began in June. Additionally, we have a very large CIA base near Erbil, which was reported by the Miami Herald last month, and protection of that, because of our concerns with Iran, is a priority for the Administration.
The same was said, however, by Clinton administration officials about Rwanda — that the U.S. cannot risk American lives, treasure and prestige intervening in a “tribal” conflict that could embroil the U.S. in the region for years or decades. The result of that calculation was genocide. Is the situation different in this case? What should be the guidelines for when foreign troops should intervene to prevent genocide or a level of mass atrocity that approaches it?
I’ll turn this around and say that I think the situation is different because of the oil and natural gas in northern Iraq. If Rwanda had such resources I think you would have seen intervention by the U.S. in the 90s.
Additionally this situation is different, because it has been caused by U.S./Western occupation in Iraq and the resultant destabilization of the region. ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in the wake of our invasion of Iraq in 2003. What needs to be done is to reverse the cycle of instability caused by U.S. intervention and meddling, one of the results of which is the atrocity committed against the Yazidis.
Consistency in our policy is a needed start to diminish the chances of future genocide. Remember a year ago, many of the same advocates in the U.S. of our re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War to fight ISIS, were advocating the U.S. become involved militarily in Syria, which, in effect, would have put the U.S. in support of ISIS and its goals in Syria. So, consistency in policy, and some thinking other than military-only approaches, needs to be applied to the region.
As far as what guidelines should be for U.S. troop intervention, I must say I do not know. I have not seen any evidence of successful U.S. intervention to stop such violence in our modern history. So, while I think it is a noble idea, I don’t think it is practically possible. Prevention of genocide by addressing conditions of political instability and lack of political order is what is needed and what is attainable.
Certainly the U.S. invasion unleashed the chaos we’re witnessing and set in motion the events that led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS/the Islamic State. However, it was during the period of U.S. drawdown that Nouri Al-Maliki consolidated Shiite political rule and excluded the Sunnis from power, fueling the disenchantment that has led to this resurgence of militant Sunni nationalism. While the U.S. was exiting its military role in Iraq, are there diplomatic levers the Obama administration could have used to prevent the current outcome we’re seeing? Are there diplomatic levers it could still use today? Or should the U.S. simply extricate itself from the conflict on every level, both military and non-military?
I think we need to remain engaged with the world and the Middle East non-militarily while steadily reducing our military engagement, and thereby drawing down tensions in the Middle East, cooling off the arms race amongst Middle Eastern nations, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, and diminishing the rationale and narrative of terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, that rely, in simple terms, on keeping the motif of the Crusades alive. We have had a heavy military involvement, indeed a military-first foreign policy, in the Middle East since the end of World War II and most especially over the last four decades. The result has been a steadily decreasing level of stability in the region.
With Iraq we should have limited our arms sales to the Maliki government and limited its oil exports unless the government had remained politically inclusive. We have also fostered incredible confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, aggravating an existing Sunni Arab and Shia Persian tension that has played out in both nations supporting proxies in the civil war in Iraq. Of course, this may not have been possible; we may not have had such leverage in Iraq following our occupation. Both Shia and Sunni Iraqi communities were devastated as a result of the American occupation, so it is debatable what influence we could have had at all in Iraq over the last three years.
I feel, sadly, the violence in Iraq may need to play out, that external involvement will cause unintended consequences in Iraq and the region. The United States’ focus needs to be on repairing, actually completely rebuilding, any moral authority it once possessed and trying to become a truly independent outside power that seeks stability, balance of power and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. This isn’t fanciful idealism, but rather realistic policy necessary to prevent further atrocity and collapse throughout the Middle East. If the U.S. continues to try and pick winners and losers in the Middle East then the U.S., and the Middle East, will continue to fail.
Do you believe that the most stable eventual outcome for Iraqis may be the partition of Iraq into three countries, for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, respectively, if it’s even possible to do so without foreign intervention?
Yes, I do. I think that is the solution. There must be an equitable sharing of resources, but I believe that is the path most conducive to stability. Over time, when political order is restored, I think you will see a return to the multi-ethnicity that did characterize large parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, but for now I think only segregation and equitable sharing of resources will provide a solution to stop the cycle of violence.
At this particular moment, do you hold out much hope for the long-term future of Iraq?
No. I think political order in Iraq has been so overturned and upset, that we are going to see a lot more bloodshed until a natural and legitimate political order exists again. Again, to reiterate, the cause of this chaos and death has been outside intervention and occupation by foreign forces. It is mind-boggling that people advocate that as the solution.
*Note that I did this interview prior to Nouri al-Maliki peacefully stepping down from power. At the time of the interview al-Maliki has deployed troops in the Green Zone for his protection. I am a bit more optimistic about the political chances, but still see partition as a likely outcome/solution.
Thanks to Dan Shea for posting the last thirty seconds or so of my Keynote Address for the Veterans for Peace Annual Convention.
It was quite an honor to address the 300+ delegates who met the last weekend of July in Asheville, NC. It is an organization I am proud to be a part of and one I hope will continue to grow and become a stronger advocate for peace, sanity and compassion.
I’ll post the full version of the video when I get it, but until then here’s the conclusion:
Two of the more important works on PTSD and moral injury are Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Shay, a great proponent of the concept of Moral Injury, something I recognize in myself, explains the difference between PTSD and moral injury in this excellent piece from Public Insight Network:
Moral injury, Shay says, can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”
That person who’s betraying “what’s right” could be a superior — or that person could be you. Maybe it’s that you killed somebody or were ordered to kill. Or maybe it was something tragic that you could have stopped, but didn’t. Guilt and shame are at the center of moral injury. And, as Shay describes it, so is a shrinking of what he calls “the moral and social horizon.” When a person’s moral horizon shrinks, he says, so do a person’s ideals and attachments and ambitions……
….“Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with combat vets for twenty years and authored two books about PTSD — or psychological and moral injury, as he insists it should be known — told me by phone from his Newton, Mass., office, ‘It’s titanic pain that these men live with. They don’t feel that they can get that across, in part because they feel they deserve it, and in part because they don’t feel people will understand it.’
“‘Despair, this word that’s so hard to get our arms around,’ he said. ‘It’s despair that rips people apart [who] feel they’ve become irredeemable.’
“I told Dr. Shay about Noah’s experiences in Iraq, in particular the killing, the loss of comrades, the nightmares. He sounded saddened on the phone, but unsurprised. ‘The flip side of this fellow’s despair was the murderous rages he experienced on his second tour,’ he said. ‘In combat, soldiers become each other’s mothers. The rage, need for revenge, and self-sacrificial commitment toward protecting each other when comrades are killed [are] akin to when a mother’s offspring are put in danger or killed.’
“Dr. Shay explained the nightmares and sleeplessness were one of the major issues. ‘The lack of sleep contributed directly to a loss of control of his own anger, a loss of control of things he felt morally responsible for.’”
“Peers are the key to recovery — I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said. “Credentialed mental health professionals like me have no place in center stage. It’s the veterans themselves, healing each other, that belong at center stage.”
Shay, demonstrating that PTSD and moral injury has been common to warriors since the creation of civilization by identifying PTSD and moral injury in the great Homerian works, also identifies PTSD and Moral Injury in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. From Public Insight Network, again, Shay places the corresponding PTSD symptoms alongside Lady Percy’s lines from Act II, Scene 2:
O my good lord, why are you thus alone? (Social withdrawal and isolation)
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed? (Random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy)
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, (Somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure)
and thy golden sleep? (Insomnia)
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth (Depression)
And start so often when thou sit’st alone? (Hyperactive startle reaction)
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks (Peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyper-activity)
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy? (Sense of the dead being more real than the living, depression)
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched, (Fragmented, vigilant sleep)
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And though hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, or trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep, (Traumatic dreams, reliving episodes of combat, fragmented sleep)
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream … (Night sweats, automatic hyperactivity)
Do you recognize this in a loved one? Do you recognize this in yourself? I wonder who in the great bard’s life inspired him to relay such pain through Lady Percy’s words. And note, that Lady Percy’s pain is as deep, tormenting and disabling as that of her husbands’. PTSD and moral injury is, in effect, contagious, and wrecks relationships and families. True now and true over five hundred years ago.
Before admitting my injury and getting help, from friends, family, peers, strangers and professionals, I would have silently and reluctantly recognized these words in myself. I would loathe myself for such recognition and would find solace in alcohol and suicidality. If this is you now, there is no shame, open up, admit your pain and get help. Your pain is as old as war and I promise you, you will find strength in others when you seek help and in that you will find strength in yourself.
Politico published a piece today I wrote on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and how his treatment by politicians, the media and the public ties into the current state of veterans issues. Please give it a read and let me know your thoughts.
Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl
When you go through the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School there are a number of things that are literally beaten into you. You are hit in the face and slammed against walls. Rifle butts and barrels strike you in the head. You are placed in small wooden boxes and deprived of food and sleep, and some of you are water-boarded (yes, it is torture). But the most important and beneficial aspects of the training are the psychological pressures and forces you are subjected to. You are taught what you should expect and what it is you should do to mentally survive captivity as a prisoner of war. You learn through practice to depend on your fellow prisoners and, most importantly, to hold fast in your faith and the knowledge your country will never forget you and the United States will always come for you.
I went through SERE training in southern California in 2000. It was April, so the hot desert days quickly became cold desert nights. With little water, no food, (you do, however, get to eat bugs, cactus and rabbits) and only a piece of parachute and a fellow Marine for warmth and shelter, you are forced to put your training into practice and rely upon not just the physical strength of your fellow trainees but their mental strength. Implicit in that reliance is the understanding you will support one another and that, in turn, you will not be abandoned. The core concept of SERE is “Return Home with Honor,” and again you are holding faithful to the conviction you will not be forgotten. To finish off your training, American commandos rescue you from the prisoner of war camp in a simulated raid. The contract is clear: Never give up, because you will never be forgotten and you will never be left behind.
A few years later, I went to war in Iraq. I saw friends die and took part in a process and system of killing that that was justified by a non-existent, made-up threat to American national security. A foreign nation, innocent of any crimes against the United States, was plunged into a barbaric and horrifying civil war, a war that is still slaughtering its citizens. Even with all of the mendacity and madness of the Iraq War, coming home plagued with survivor’s guilt and moral injury, you still believe in the institutions, you still believe in the ideals and principles that say you will not be forgotten, that your nation owes you a debt and that debt will always be met.
Today I’m not sure if I know any veterans who still believe such platitudes. Most of us cringe at the yellow “Support the Troops” bumper stickers that still adorn some cars — mostly they are the non-magnetic kind that are pasted on and not easily removed. Many Americans would be surprised to know America still has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, twelve of whom, including two teenagers, were killed this past month in what is America’s historically most unpopular war. We veterans are among the few the few who still pay attention to the mostly unnoticed and pointless dying in a war that 84 percent of Americans are against, andwe also find ourselves cursing under our breath during the cheers and ovations for the veteran without legs in the wheelchair who gets free tickets to a baseball game, but who can’t get timely or thorough physical and mental health care and who has a pretty good chance of killing himself someday. According to Veterans Administration figures, some 22 veterans are now committing suicide every day—and the average hasn’t fallen below18 a day since 9/11, which means that something like a total of 100,000 veterans have killed themselves since then. Loud clapping, free food and your face on the Jumbo-tron during a rousing rendition of a Lee Greenwood song seems to be what you are owed, not health care, disability assistance, adequate job training or a public and truthful accounting of why these wars were fought and why they were lost. Our youngest veterans, those who bore the brunt of the death and mutilation in these wars, have a 22 percent unemployment rate. The generals who lost these wars teach at Stanford, USC and Yale.
Into this environment Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has returned from five years as a prisoner of war. I am a friend of his mother and father, Jani and Bob. They are wonderful, kind and loving parents. I hope someday they tell their story of how they survived five years of suffering, unsure if they would ever have their son back, while waging a practically unacknowledged campaign to win his freedom. Without their strength in each other and their commitment to their son, I seriously doubt if Bowe Bergdahl would now be back home in the United States.
Nearly 7,000 American families have not had their sons and daughters return from these wars. You would expect with such losses over the last thirteen years, as a nation, we would rejoice in the end of the Bergdahls’ anguish and grief. However, in complete defiance of any obligation to our men and women in uniform or the thousands upon thousands of family members of the uniformed dead of these wars, Sergeant Bergdahl and his parents have been victimized and demonized in a horrific display of politically inspired hate and vitriol.
For five years Jani and Bob lived a parent’s worst nightmare, fearful every day for the knock on the front door from a man in uniform on a mission to tell them their son would never come home. As any parent would be, the Bergdahls were overjoyed for Bowe’s return. They weren’t expecting parades and a hero’s welcome, but neither did they expect a whole new nightmare—the one they are now living. Imagine what it’s like to see your son demonized, and without any evidence, every time you turn on the television. Every day they must endure hateful innuendo while wondering what the future holds for their son, his name and his chances for a normal life.
We do know, based on the Army’s investigation of Bergdahl and subsequent news reports, that he left his base voluntarily, but he had done so previously, always returning to the base. We know he left his base without a weapon or any of the items he likely would have taken if he had intended to desert, ,– such as food, clothing, a sleeping mat, etc. We know Bergdahl was taken as a prisoner of war in a struggle and that he tried to escape multiple times from his Taliban captors. Nothing other than the words of his fellow soldiers– soldiers he characterized in emails printed by Rolling Stone magazine “as pieces of sh*t” and who were members of a unit widely acknowledged to have leadership and discipline problems– indicates desertion. The Army investigation in August 2009 did not find Bergdahl guilty of desertion, and I am confident the current investigation, which I fully support, will not conclude desertion either. Yes, reckless, dumb, crazy behavior, but not desertion. Yet, in a shameful and disgraceful manner that reminds me of Vietnam Veterans being spat upon, Sergeant Bergdahl and his family have been labeled as traitors, and their suffering and sacrifice buried beneath partisan hate highlighted by grandstanding politicians and ratings-obsessed pundits.
For those who are still in uniform and any of those considering enlisting, realize and recognize this reality. You are taught you won’t be abandoned, that you will be taking care of and the pain of combat worthy of the costBut the truth is your war may quickly be forgotten, your sacrifice will likely become a poltician’s talking point and your care will be no better than third rate..
In SERE school the conviction is ever-present that if you become a prisoner of war you will not be abandoned and you will always be brought home. But future prisoners of war should know this certainty: Your value as an American service member, and the treatment of your family, will not be measured against a code of conduct you may believe in or any of the trite and hackneyed platitudes bandied about by generals or politicians. Nor will large swaths of the public or media show any degree of sympathy or appreciation for your mother and father’s loss. Instead your release will be measured against public opinion polls. I trust the military is updating its SERE course curriculum.
Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former Marine Corps captain, worked as a State Department official in Afghanistan until he resigned in protest in 2009, saying U.S. policy was not working.