In March 2003, the United States military, accompanied by a coalition of international forces, invaded Iraq.
In December 2011, after nearly 9 years of occupation and continuous fighting against first the Iraqi military and later an entrenched insurgency, the U.S. completed its final withdrawal of combat troops from the country.
By any measure, the price for this conflict was staggering.
There were 4,486 U.S. soldiers killed in action along with 318 men and women from the coalition. It is now estimated that more than 500,000 Iraqi men, women and children lost their lives as a result of the war.
More than 52,000 Americans were wounded in action with more than 6,000 of those needing to have at least one limb amputated. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s own records, which are considered to be conservative, more than 300,000 soldiers have suffered a traumatic brain injury, most due to being in close proximity to an explosion.
All of these numbers are low because they do not take into consideration those who died or were injured while deployed in Iraq as a result of illness or vehicle accidents or other causes not attributed directly to military action.
As difficult as these numbers are, they are only a fraction of the total carnage that this war has inflicted on those who served there. Coming home was not the end of the trouble for many, if not most, of the men and women deployed to Iraq.
More than a million veterans have been diagnosed with at least one mental disorder associated with their service since returning home and nearly a half million of those have two or more mental issues with which to cope. To date, 338,294 men and woman have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experts believe that the real numbers of those veterans suffering from PTSD could be twice that high, due to a reluctance to admit the problem on the part of soldiers and the hesitancy to acknowledge the problem on the part of the military hierarchy.
Such lasting mental anguish has taken its own toll.
On any given night there are an estimated 63,000 homeless vets living on our streets, many who served in Iraq. And these days more soldiers are dying as a result of suicide than are being killed by any foreign enemy. We now have an average of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives.
On top of that, wives and husbands and children of veterans by the tens of thousands are being physically and emotionally abused. Millions of military families are being crushed under the weight of this mental chaos, which too often expresses itself in anger and depression that lead to substance abuse, violence, unemployment and divorce.
But just when it seemed that things could not get much more difficult for our veterans of the Iraq War, they have.
After all they have been through, these men and women who served their country and sacrificed so much are now being bombarded by a news cycle that is salt to their many wounds.
As this year’s Fourth of July holiday arrives, each day’s headlines seem to scream out another injustice to our veterans. These men and women who have faced so much are now literally dying because they can’t cut through the red tape to see a doctor. All the while they think that people are trying their best to help them because their own government, by way of their own veterans administration, has scribbled their names on fake waiting lists that it knows will never get anyone’s name to the top. Cover-ups and lies are now rocking one Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital after another, including here in Colorado, as it becomes increasingly clear that many of the promises to take care of those who have so selflessly served their county are proving to be hollow words carrying little weight that promote no action.
This year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting was yet another illustration of our lacking effort towards our soldiers. In an exposÚ that ran in the Colorado Springs Gazette titled “Other Than Honorable,” reporter Dave Philipps exposed how soldiers injured during war are being discharged from the military without any benefits — left to fend for themselves when it comes to covering the often astronomical cost of the injuries they have suffered.
All of these recent revelations must surely feel like a slap in the face to our veterans, and yet, in many instances they are the ones who have come to the defense of the government that has seemingly forsaken them.
The mental health and other healthcare issues, unemployment, suicides and PTSD are really bad, but perhaps worst of all these days, veterans can only watch helplessly as every day another piece of Iraq that was bought with their blood falls back into the hands of Islamic extremists determined to turn that country into something far more threatening to the rest of the world than anything Saddam Hussein ever had in mind.
After so much sacrifice, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to hear and see in the news that places like Tal Afar, Mosul, Ramadi, Falluja and Takrit — sites of some of the bloodiest incidents in the U.S. war in Iraq — have now fallen to an army of Al-Qaedaaligned militants known as the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, ISIS).
How does it feel to see a decade of sacrifice thrown away in a matter of hours like the uniforms of the Iraqi police supposedly trained to take the place of their U.S. military counterparts? How does it feel for our vets to know that they and their brothers and sisters in arms are suffering at the hands of their own government’s seeming incompetence as illustrated by a trail of broken promises, neglect and even deception?
These are the questions that we have chosen to explore this week even as we honor and celebrate those who have given so much to our country. We hope to learn by exploring current events through the eyes of our soldiers in their own words.
As is our long-standing tradition at Boulder Weekly, we are using our Fourth of July issue to examine patriotism and nationalism from a perspective that isn’t likely to find its way into the mainstream media.
Thanks for reading this important issue and thanks to all the men and woman of our armed forces who have sacrificed so much in the service to our country. And a special thanks to all those veterans who took the time to share their stories and opinions.
Jake Holmes, U.S. National Guard, 133rd Engineer Company, 2001-2008
I was 18 or 19 when I enlisted [for the National Guard] and I always kind of knew I was going to growing up. My grandfather did. My dad did. I had some extended family members who served. I just didn’t know to what extent I would serve.
“First company I was originally with was the 133rd Engineer Company out of Laramie. That was my father’s original unit and probably one of the reasons I went into that unit, with the legacy and all. In 2004 we got the notice [of deployment], but we didn’t actually get into [Iraq] until a little after New Year’s 2005.”
“That first day, I was gung-ho about it. I was only 22, 23 maybe when we got in country. I was ready. They needed gunners on the bus, but they didn’t have enough ammo to issue everyone, so I put myself out there, not knowing we were in Kuwait and nothing would happen, but it was still that first day. I was still naive to how things were actually working. You were ready, wide-eyed, like going to school for the first time.
“That first [deployment] was mainly our engineering task, so we were building roads, culverts and bridges, helping out with infrastructure on base and off base. It wasn’t too bad, but it put you in a different mindset while you were over there. So when I got back [to the U.S.], I wasn’t really feeling comfortable at home and so immediately I started looking for another unit to deploy with. I found one and they were leaving for a mobile station three months later, so I just kind of bummed around. And I didn’t really do anything. I spent a lot of time drinking.
“In 2007, I went back overseas and did the whole thing again. This time we got retasked as convoy security. We were the trucks in between the convoys of truckers and made sure they got to their destination, from point A to point B throughout the county. It’s how we got supplies across country, because it’s cheaper than doing airdrops from planes. We got blown up a lot — a lot. IEDs were a constant thing. We were probably getting blown up three times a week.
“There were a lot of injuries from IEDs. Ultimately everyone came back in one piece — physically. Mentally, not everybody came back. It was hard to see. And I knew that was probably gonna happen after my first tour and I wasn’t right when I came back.
“The second time corrected me and I decided I didn’t want to do this anymore. Well, we came to an agreement: the military said, ‘We don’t want you anymore,’ and I said, ‘Fuck you, I don’t want to be in anymore.’ I was barred from enlistment. I was outspoken and very rebellious. I didn’t like to follow things I didn’t agree with.
“I took a different mindset when I got back and disassociated myself with everything for a long, long time.
“The group of people I went with always knew it [Iraq’s return to religious infighting] was going to happen. We called it 10 years ago when we went over there. It’s like the status quo now: We go in somewhere, sometimes we establish full time bases, but ultimately we let the country go back to whoever was the ruling power over there.
“I think that’s the problem in general is that we haven’t finished anything definitively in almost 100 years, since World War I, really.
“We, as Americans, were involved in that war, at least from scrimping on materials and the food you could buy to making planes and ammunition. As wars progressed and time went on, the population got disassociated and with that comes a lack of interest and caring. People will say, ‘Let the Middle East do what they want to do,’ but I think they would feel different if we dropped them over there and said, ‘Live for a while.’ Same thing about if people saw where their meat comes from, they wouldn’t eat meat. With war and conflict, don’t be quick to judge unless you’ve seen this situation.
“It was never a war to me, either, so there was nothing to win. First it was weapons of mass destruction. Then it was trying to train the country so they could be a democracy. And we’ll never really know why [the U.S. was] there, but I’m assuming they got it [whatever they wanted] because when they were done, we pulled out.
“The Bush administration signed the contract to pull out of Iraq — they got what they wanted from over there. Companies got their contracts and got their money. I’m sure Blackwater and other agencies got what they wanted.
“Do I feel that my time was wasted? No, because I still had a job to do. Could my time be better spent? Could the military’s time and money be better spent? Yes.
“When you come home, it’s a culture shock. The military doesn’t teach you how to deal with that situation. All these new feelings, these sensations, these colors, even tastes and smells, it’s a shock to your system that you’re not prepared for.
“Even wives who are used to running the house and all of sudden dads come back and they are used to telling people what do to and it causes problems. The divorce ratio is so high in the military now. Even spouses and kids and husbands, they offer classes at the VA for them because they don’t know how to handle vets when they come home. I hope the government and military and VA are starting to realize those problems. I was hoping they would be quicker to catch on to that.”
Xuno Gildelamadrid, U.S. Army, First Calvary Division/75th Regiment Second Battalion, 2001-2008
Xuno Gildelamadrid was stationed in Kuwait on September 11, 2001. No one knew exactly what had happened, but it was clear that the U.S. had come under attack. There were mass casualties. Soon people started to say it was the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
At the time many believed that Iraqi forces were responsible for the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., because that was the false information that was repeatedly put forward by Vice President Dick Cheney. Gildelamadrid’s division was the closest to the Iraqi border, so they were ordered to stage themselves about a kilometer from the border in Humvees. But after a few days of waiting, they were sent to Afghanistan to spend the next five months setting up roads and doing recon as the U.S. prepared to send troops to fight Al Qaeda.
It wasn’t until the latter part of 2002 that Gildelamadrid went to Iraq to aid as U.S. and British troops took over the Baghdad airport. Most of his work in both his first and second tour in Iraq involved community relations.
“We have to try to hold the community, make them feel safe so they can give us intell so we can do our jobs,” says Gildelamadrid. “Without them, we are lost. To do that you have to have relationships. At the end of the day people are interested in the best interest for their family. It’s very much a clan society over there. That’s why Iraq has the problems they have now and may have forever. You have to understand their needs.”
“I was always someone who tried to learn Arabic. I felt it helped me,” says Gildelamadrid. “The more you can sympathize with their culture, the more you can understand them, even though their religion and culture are different, they’re still a person and you’re still a person.
As for Iraq slipping back into disarray since U.S. troops have withdrawn, Gildelamadrid isn’t shocked.
“I’ll start off by saying that anyone who says it’s a surprise, they either haven’t been in the country or they’re lying,” he says. “Anyone who’s been there, they said give it a year and it’d be a goat fuck, for lack of a better term.
“My political views and ideas of international affairs have changed over the years through experience and education,” says Gildelamadrid, who just last year wrapped up his studies in engineering physics and international relations at the University of Colorado Boulder. “At the time [most military personnel deploy], you’re young and you think America can do whatever it wants. I thought we could do this. ‘We can help you. We’ve got your back.’ And you try to exude that, too. Also it’s the typical American cockiness. I thought we would be able to not necessarily guarantee, but to help them have a better future. Now I have different ideas about democracy and how you can come upon it.
“I think democracy is something people have to earn,” he says. “If you don’t earn it, you can’t appreciate it. You have to fight for it. It cannot be given to a society that is historically clan-based. If you don’t have an idea of what a nation is, what would motivate you to protecting a nation?”
While Gildelamadrid echos the sentiments of other veterans when he says that the U.S. intervention in Iraq was “half-assed” at best, and futile at worst, he says, in the end, it’s not so black and white.
“I think it comes down to how it’s gonna end up. Looking there and seeing the people and seeing their hope, whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, letting them do things they couldn’t do before. If they continue to do that and change progressively and continue to do what they want — we can’t judge their progression by what we want. If they do things that they consider is a better way of life for them, then that’s a success. If it’s a group coming in and implementing Shiite law — this whole region has been working towards that for so long [becoming different countries]. Maybe [the U.S. invasion was] the catalyst for that. There are different ways of looking at it. I tend to believe this area, the borders aren’t meant to be drawn the way they are today. I think that’ll change. If you want to see optimistic views, if anything else, [the war] triggered this fracturing and it might settle things for 50 or 75 years, which seems to be the cycle for this region.”
Sgt. Tyler Buell and Tracey Buell U.S. Marine Corps Iraq (2008-2009), Afghanistan (2011)
Like many loving military couples, Tyler and Tracey Buell have agreed to keep things from one other.
Tyler tidies the gruesome realities of war for her. He doesn’t report from overseas on who has been injured or killed — news that spreads as a heartened, sympathetic gossip amongst wives on bases back home. Tyler keeps from her the lingering effects of his four years in Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields. He says he’s simply “startled at loud noises”; she’s more frank, he “has some PTSD moments.”
Tracey hides from him the swollen aortas of worry that come from hearing a sliver of news on the base — “no news is good news,” she says — and then not hearing from Tyler for days or even weeks. She hides from him her sacrifice in the wake of his.
All couples do it; these little white omissions to ease the mind of their beloved.
“It was probably easier for me to be away because I knew that she was safe and sound and I had plenty to keep me busy while I was deployed,” says Tyler. Buell was deployed in Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and Afghanistan in 2011. Tracey lived in Albany (where they met), then on their base station in Jacksonville, N.C. after they married between deployments.
“I don’t think the sacrifices I made while Tyler was serving can be even remotely compared to his own sacrifices and the sacrifices of his brothers,” Tracey says. “Those men made different sacrifices, harder sacrifices. It’s hard to see things unravel [in Iraq] after so many lives were lost and sacrifices were made, and it does make it feel like, in the end, it was all for nothing because people seem to have forgotten all that was given up by those men. But I think this is a question they should answer, not me.”
Is it though? Tracey made a sacrifice of the heart and mind; Tyler, a sacrifice of the body and soul. Both recognize the other’s sacrifice and agree they are both entitled to answer that question. Tyler, however, has the benefit of first-hand experience training the very Iraqi police that have either been slain by ISIS or abandoned their posts.
“We were living on a split base with Iraqi Army and mentoring the local Iraqi police and I was less than impressed with either force,” Tyler said. “They struck me as lazy and unmotivated, and were in it for the paycheck.
“I don’t think that the current situation in Iraq takes anything away from what the U.S. armed forces did in that country. We can’t want things for people more than they want them themselves. If they don’t want to stand up for themselves and their families it has no impact on my honor or the quality of training we supplied them with.
“Patrolling was really where you saw the issue. They were perfectly content to sit at the police station and drink chai and smoke cigarettes. When they had their weekly meeting in Ramadi or Fallujah, we would have to escort them and usually we would have to go to the police station early enough to make sure that they were ready to go and that we would only be about an hour or so behind. When we told them a time and asked if they would be ready the response was generally ‘n’sha Allah’ which means ‘God willing’ but translated more accurately to ‘If we feel like it, but probably not.’”
Tyler’s blame for the ISIS insurgency falls on the Iraqi police who forfeited what U.S. troops helped them fight for, and to the Iraqi al-Malaki government that he says enacted bad policy and exacted bad governance. He doesn’t blame those in the U.S. who give orders, U.S. politicians or military strategy. He doesn’t blame himself or his fellow soldiers. He did his job honorably and knew what he was getting into when he enlisted.
Tracey, on the other hand, has the benefit of context, distance and perspective on these issues. Far removed from the ineptitude her husband says he encountered and the daily grind of war, she keeps her own opinion. She said she’s “absolutely angry” when politicians or military personnel make decisions she doesn’t understand or agree with.
“Many politicians don’t see military issues as they should be seen because they aren’t in the situation that actual military men and women, as well as veterans, are in,” she says.
What Tracey alludes to are the bits of strategy and politics that are not told to U.S. troops while on active duty, the white omissions recruiters do not — and could not possibly — tell recruits about the realities of war, and the busy signals from government organizations that many soldiers get upon their return.
It’s clear in talking to veterans that those omissions take a toll. Consider that on some level, the ability for soldiers to control the risks to which they are subjected and the ability to maintain context for their sacrifices is lost while on active duty. This, as many soldiers will say, is their choice and their job. However, a common byproduct of this subjective suspension is a cognitive dissonance wherein soldiers must not ask questions while serving — even to themselves — so as to remain focused, safe and sane. This effect can lead to the ornament of a coping bow on what is a chaotic, complex, unknowable, intractable episode in each soldiers’ life and the lives of their loved ones. And upon their return, that bow needs to be unstrung — some need more help than others.
This kind of self-preserving mental yoga exists because these men and women are tested constantly.
“I distinctly remember waking up on a January morning on the border [of Syria and Iraq] and struggling to get out of my sleeping bag because during the night the condensation from my breath had frozen to the inside of the sleeping bag and had frozen up the zipper,” Tyler says. “As far as the heat, the worst of it was in Afghanistan. It would hit 130 degrees by 11 a.m. and we would begin a patrol at about 11:30 a.m. The water that we carried would get so hot that I’m fairly certain that I could have boiled a nice cup of tea in the bottles I carried in the pouch on my back.”
And because it was so hot in Afghanistan, troops would have to carry out orders at night, when most of the locals would do their work as well.
“[Afghani farmers would] tend the fields in the evening and overnight, which made it tense because you were never sure who was out walking around when you would go out on a night patrol. It could be a bomb-maker or emplacer or it could just be a wheat farmer,” he says.
Some soldiers adopt a removed, dark humor about these constant risks. Tyler recounts a story wherein Taliban fighters in Afghanistan would hop on motorcycles and zip through narrow village streets, shooting at his patrol who couldn’t maneuver as well as the enemy could (a fighting style he calls “scoot and shoot”). After attempts to track down the Taliban fighters, a single gunman firing an AK-47 ambushed his patrol.
“We dropped to the ground and began to return fire,” Tyler says. “When I got to my feet to move up and reposition for a better line of fire, an RPK [machine gun] to my direct front opened up and put four rounds between my legs, leaving a hole in my camouflage bottoms and shredding the pack of Marlborough 27s in my right cargo pocket.”
“I was more mad about that than being shot at,” he says.
Now, in the police academy with funding from the GI Bill, Tyler says he doesn’t need help untying the bow on his war experience, but that if he did, he wouldn’t be confident he could get it.
“Since I’ve been out, I haven’t even made a disability claim due to the horror stories I’ve heard from other vets about how long it takes and the fight they had to be approved,” Tyler says. “I don’t need it, but I’ve earned it and every little bit helps. I just don’t have the patience to fight the system.”
One string pulled from the bow; one white omission spoken.
“Why aren’t veterans treated better in the country they fought so hard for is a question that shouldn’t [have to] be asked, but is every day,” Tracey says.
So although Tyler says he kept and keeps things from Tracey for her sake, he can’t keep everything from her, even if it remains unsaid. Sometimes it’s a small change in the face or a long gaze or an odd laugh. Hints like that add up. And reddened by love and emboldened by perspective and the freedom to say something, sometimes Tracey is better suited to verbalize their reality; sometimes it’s Tyler. And so together, from both ends, they are pulling the strings of the bow they had to tie to make it through the war.
“Usually when he has a PTSD moment he gets sad and sometimes emotional when he starts thinking about certain things like the death of one of his friends,” Tracey says. “Other times he gets angry. Occasionally there are times, like on July 4th, for example, where if he hears fireworks and can’t see them or where they’re coming from, it brings him back to deployments because the sound is very familiar to him and his experience. There’s nothing I can do to help, other than to just let him know that I’m there if he needs me. While these moments are rare and are less frequent then they used to be, it’s still hard to watch because I can’t do anything to help and because I can’t even imagine what he’s gone through.”
With a baby boy on the way and Tyler’s graduation from the police academy imminent, it appears another string or two will be pulled from the bow and soon the whole thing will open up.
Chris Somoza, Marine Corps, First Battalion, First Marines, Alpha Company, 2004-2008
I joined when I was 18 years old. I guess I joined because of 9/11. I think I was a junior in high school and we watched the planes fly into the twin towers. We spent the whole day in school just watching. We didn’t do any academic work. It had a really big impact on us: myself, my family — I mean, everyone. We saw how vulnerable we were. It was hard to comprehend how tragic that was. So I was really upset about that and felt I needed to do something about it. I decided to join the Marine Corps and I guess take the fight to the enemy.
“Before I went to war, it’s almost like this Hollywood image — valor and glory and these guys doing heroic things. They fight and they win and things are over and everything’s peachy. Deploying was an interesting experience. There was a big parade, a helicopter flew over and there were guys with bagpipes and we thought, ‘Wow. We’re gonna die.” So then we boarded these busses and we’re gone for seven months. It’s hard to comprehend at first.
“I did two tours of Iraq. I think it’s always been my mentality is, go for the toughest thing. The machine gunner position was great. I learned a lot from it and I met a lot of great people. It was really rewarding to be able to have that job and not only support the infantry, but it’s cool to say I played with these big machine guns.
“As a military, they [the U.S.] were unprepared for what happened in Iraq. We went in and took over and declared victory and then what? We’re stuck with this country. These people have no clue what’s going on. We disbanded their military they have no police. They have no enforcement of government. People aren’t working. We created this disarray and what happens now? I don’t think there was any thought of cultural issues: The Sunnis and Shiites, what we’re seeing today. It was just, get rid of him [Saddam Hussein], take over the country, which we’re really freaking good at. But when it comes to the aftermath, we got caught with our hands in the cookie jar. I think that was a higher-level absolute failure.
“I’m proud of what we did. Everything we did was outstanding, at an individual level, at unit level. Beyond that, what did we get out of that? We didn’t give them freedom. Essentially, we killed two really bad people, and a lot more, but what was the point? That’s a challenging thing to think about is, ‘What did we do there?’ It sucks because we all sacrificed and some scarified everything.
“There’s a lot of instability [in Iraq] and I don’t think they as a country are capable of fixing it. It’s challenging to see a place you’ve fought for so hard fall to insurgents. If you look at it, we kind of created a Shiite army in a Sunni area. What did we expect? Another what I guess you’d call a higher-level failing.
Vietnam fell back to the communists and that was it. [Iraq] fell back to the insurgency and there’s civil war. Let’s not kid ourselves: It’s almost like mirror images in different areas. Might not seem the same because there’s almost one-tenth the loss of life [in the Iraq war]. I don’t think things are going to change there anytime soon. I don’t think our involvement there is necessary. Gets into a level of politics I don’t want to get into. It’s just stupid. These two parties are giving each other a hard time — it’s all the same. They don’t understand what they are putting their veterans through.
Lee Briggeman, Sergeant in the U.S. Army, Fort Carson, Colo., 1975-1978
The military Lee Briggeman joined in November 1975 was Somoza’s mirror image. It was the same year American helicopters were filmed lifting out of Saigon as Americans fled, and the Army was riddled with men coming back from Vietnam, angry with their government, angry over the war and angry with the unfriendly welcome they’d received when they got home.
“A lot of guys were coming back and they were either disillusioned or angry, or had PTSD,” Briggeman recounts. “My brother was in the Navy during that time, he came home in ’70, my other brother was marching in the peace parades, so I saw it from both sides.”
Times were tough when she enlisted — she had a not-quite-finished college education and was having a hard time finding a job, so she joined the Army. Two military bases offered basic training for women at the time, one that covered physical training and one where women bound for secretarial jobs “learned to be pretty.” Headed for an electronics shop, where she’d work as a desk clerk, it didn’t matter much if she put makeup on before she went to work, she says, so she went to the regular basic training. Once stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, she asked her top sergeant why women weren’t participating in PT [physical training]. He responded that if she wanted to, she could lead PT for women. So she did.
In her last year in service, she was invited to be the first woman in the non-commissioned officer academy, where she graduated with first honors.
“I felt like I had sort of a transitional role in women in the service at that time,” she says. “I enjoyed a lot of it. When my captain got upset with me, he would send me out to change truck tires on my Deuce and a half [cargo truck] — and he got upset with me just once, thank goodness. But I knew how to change my tires, I knew how to change my oil.”
For most of her life, aside from the GI Bill that put her through college, she never called on the VA for help. Then, in 2008, she found herself having to spend her income on medicine instead of rent. Had she known the VA would have paid for her medication, she says, she wouldn’t have lost her house. But like so many female veterans, she didn’t know that option was out there. Earlier this year, she was looking at having to live out of her truck when someone referred her to a house run by the Volunteers of America along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which houses female veterans. Women can stay for up to two years.
Briggeman now lives in a room in one of three houses operated by the organizations on a shady, tree-lined street in Denver near the VA medical center. They’re the only ones of their kind in the country, a pilot program of sorts where Volunteers of America provides housing to women veterans who were homeless or were about to become homeless.
“The way we set this up here with the VA and HomeAid Colorado was never done before, so we’ve had quite a lot of trips from presidential cabinet members and high-ranking officials within the VA, actually Shinseki came here a couple times to check out these three houses because there was never a program like this just for female veterans,” says Jordan Kellerman, communications specialist for Volunteers of America’s Colorado branch. At this time, it’s not home to many veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those women are still working their way through family and friends or may not even be aware that these services are available to them. For now, many of the residents are like Briggeman and began their service during or shortly after the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnam vets, a lot of them died without the help,” says Briggeman. “My brother did not get help and he died because he drank and smoked himself to death. He never went to a Veterans Center. He never went in for help, and I talk to people still whose brothers haven’t gotten help, who still haven’t come home from Vietnam. So there are still people out there that could benefit. ... I was lucky because I got to talk to Vietnam vets at Vet Centers and got to help a little bit. But I know there’s still vets, Vietnam vets out there, that could benefit if they’d ever come in for help. The problem was, Vietnam vets were so angry and so upset with the people and so disillusioned with the government when they came back … there was so much anger and hostility toward the government, toward the people of America for their treatment, that you’ll still see them on the streets or under the railroad trestles. They’re the ones that dropped out and they just never came back. They’re the ones that, if they’re still alive, they just never would come in for help. … It’s just a great American tragedy, that’s all.”
She’s only been using veterans benefits since 2010, she says, and in general, feels fortunate that they’ve taken care of her and that she’s found a place in the Volunteers of America homes.
Of the news stories about the backlog of cases at the VA medical centers, she says, “The VA has a lot to deal with, a lot, and I’m not surprised, what did surprise me in all that was that they give bonuses to people who aren’t doing their jobs, that really upset me. That really very much upset me. I understand that they’re backlogged, because they have a lot to deal with. … What bothered me was the book where I read where they weren’t accepting their Iraqi troops that came home that needed help, they were kind of side-slipping them and just ignoring them. That bothered me when I read that. … If you’re a soldier and you’ve served, there’s no reason that you can’t get services. There’s no excuse for that. So bonuses? No, no bonuses. Not for people that aren’t signing up people that should be getting services.”
For her own experiences, with the VA, she’s always seen her needs met if she called, but adds, “I would say that if you need help, you have to be a squeaky wheel.”
And she sees this generation has no shortage of need for services, particularly because, while there have been advancements in treating PTSD, she says, we’re only just beginning to understand the now pervasive traumatic brain injuries. All that’s tough to weigh the balance of the fight for a country that’s now disintegrating.
“It is so hard to watch a mess like this [Iraq] going on again. You think you finish something, and it’s not finished,” Briggeman says. “You’re just thinking, all the bloodshed, and how many people have died, and now it’s all starting up again. And what was it all for? All of our people who have died. And twice now we’ve had conflicts and we’re sending all those guys over, and to what purpose? We’re going to get our people out and it’s still going to collapse and it’s still going to be a mess, and they’re killing their own people and the leadership, over there is a crooked mess and they want us to bomb, and we’re bad people because we haven’t bombed and you’re just thinking, ‘What was it all for?’ ... And you’re just thinking about all the dead soldiers, Americans, and why were we there? What did we do? What did we accomplish? And then, what a tragedy. And that’s what I think, what a tragedy.
“We’ve left behind hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, we’ve left behind all those nasty bombs that are going to harm their people for how long, and we’ve left behind no resolution, just a war. And we’ve left it open for these people to go in and take over their country, ISIS. We didn’t leave behind strong leadership but we can’t control that, we can’t control what happens there. We want to think we can, but we can’t.
“But all of our guys, women and men, who’ve ruined their lives or changed their lives for that mess, it’s a tragedy. All those people that lost their lives or their limbs or their brains, they’ll never be the same. All the rapes that took place over there, men and women… Not real happy.”
Joseph Young, Army musician, 2009-2014 Fort Rucker, Ala. and Fort Carson, Colo.
As a musician, Joe Young knew he was up against it but never did he think his only career option would be to join the Army. But when the economy tanked in 2007, Young, originally from Kansas City, decided to leave his community college and enlist after getting advice from a friend.
“I was looking around and deciding if I should get a blue collar job or try to ride it out and a friend of mine who used to serve in the Army said, ‘You know, the Army has a band.’ So I decided to at least go look at it and see if that’s an option. And I decided, for me, it was the best option because I would have the benefits afterwards and I would be compensated during the recession,” Young says.
Young was able to choose his base and picked Alabama — the seclusion of that base allowed him to focus on “building myself up, reading, studying music, finance [and] economics.” While there, he completed basic training and boot camp like the rest of the recruits and continued on to musician-specific training school.
After basic training, Young was ready to serve at military bases at home. The music department in the Army is largely ceremonial, Young says. Historically, the music corp. directed troops via bugle and drum after receiving orders from the commander. Now, the company largely is used for traditional purposes.
“I had an expectation of what my role would be and then you get there and then it’s not the case,” Young says. “From a soldiering standpoint, I had to be just as competent as any of the other soldiers, excluding the front line guys. On top of that, since my unit is very specific, we would have to do other jobs to make our value better to the Army, so I was also a supply clerk and the barracks NCO.”
One thing Young didn’t expect was the frequency with which he had to play military funerals — the gravity of which was startling and sobering.
“As a soldier, I know my job is softline — you’re not technically taking fire, but you do all the same training,” Young says. “The band does go to Afghanistan and Iraq, we follow the Army like we always have. You realize how close you are to being in those guys’ shoes. You’re sitting there, you’re playing, you’re being a professional and you’re mind is going through how serious it is, the job you chose. That’s the connection that’s there. The underlying truth that unites everybody.
“There’s two [memorial services] I remember in particular. One was the death of a young soldier. He was 18. He was from Florida, stationed in Florida, and his entire family was at the funeral. The patriot guard came out and they were holding their POW flags. The riflemen were shooting off their rounds.
“It’s something that no one thinks about — when the bugler is playing taps. No one pays attention to it. They listen to it and they think it’s nice and part of the ceremony but if a soldier wasn’t allowed to have taps played by a true bugle player, especially an active duty soldier, you would notice it. It would be a disservice — like something’s missing.
“The other one, there were four to five soldiers [who] were killed in Afghanistan from Fort Carson. One was a lieutenant and one was a battalion sergeant major. And that one was huge because when you’re on a large post — it’s a family kind of feel. And for all of those soldiers — some came out — it was an emotional ceremony. I’m getting goose bumps now remembering it. We played hymnals.
“As a kid I studied jazz, classical, rock, reggae all this fun music and I even played in a few churches, but the memorial portion of it is something that is so — it really impacts you,” Young says.
Young says that during his time in the service he played dozens of memorials for soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each time is deeply affecting, he says, but like soldiers must remain calm and execute in times of stress on the battlefield, Young’s job was to honor fallen soldiers in the midst of great heartache by playing taps unwaveringly.
Perhaps there’s no other role in the military that encounters death as much as the music corp. — front line men and women see more violence and are confronted with their own mortality on a daily basis, but their time for reflection — by nature of their jobs — is limited. They don’t see the weeping widow or the mystified children. Just imagine trying to do your job at a funeral for someone who died too early.
So one could imagine that Young has a unique perspective on the current state of affairs in Iraq and for our veteran issues. He called the lack of VA accountability and the militant resurgence in Iraq “disheartening.”
“I was never a commander. I was never in charge so I don’t know what’s going on on that side of the house. From a soldier standpoint, you will go do whatever you’re told to do. You don’t think about the issues back home, you don’t think about Republicans versus Democrats. You don’t think about whether you love or hate Obama — the only thing you think about is, this is the order that was given and this is what I’m going to go do. From a military standpoint, that’s probably the widely accepted viewpoint, but there’s also wide demographics in the Army so opinions differ.
“The VA gets better every year,” Young says. “Their equipment gets better, their treatment gets better. Definitely the backlog needs to be taken care of, but the VA has still provided a lot for a lot of soldiers.”
Young is now preparing to attend CU in the fall via the GI Bill. He intends to major in communications and minor in business.
Nora Bender, Tech Sergeant E6 in the U.S. Army and Air Force, Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and Buckley Air Force Base, among others, 1974-1999
Before Nora Bender could join the military in 1974, pursuing work in a field that had always fascinated her, she had to get her husband’s permission.
“Getting my husband to sign that it was OK became a bit more of a battle, but I did get his signature and off I went,” she says.
“I was the only female in the infantry because at that time they were experimenting with women doing men’s jobs or their career fields,” she recalls. “So I was a radio operator, carrying a radio on my back. I also, because I could drive a manual, drove the jeep a lot and carried a weapon.”
While most women in the infantry worked in offices, she was out with the men, laying cable and setting up places where commanders on the ground could talk to pilots in the sky. She worked with all men.
“It was OK,” she says. “I didn’t have that big of a problem because I had been teased a lot by all my male cousins before I even thought about going into service.”
“I missed the war totally,” she says. “I wanted to go over there and fight for my country, and instead I ended up at Fort Huachuca.”
In 1954, the Fort was found to be an ideal climate for testing electronic and communications equipment and as a result it became the command center for Army communications. Bender worked there as a radio communications operator, pushing the button that allowed one end of a radio conversation from overseas to end and the other from America to pick up. She overheard conversations between husbands and wives, young men and their mothers and fathers.
“It was hard,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to hear, say when a mom has called her son to let him know that his dad had died or his sister had died or his dog had died or kitty or whatever. When they’re wanting to come home, they’re expecting those to be there waiting on them, so it just adds more stress to whatever they’re doing. Or a young man saying he doesn’t want to come home — it can work both ways. So it was not easy. Sometimes you’d like to push the button and just disconnect them, but no, that’s their conversation back and forth and you listen to it.”
She transferred from the Army to the Air Force after three years, and spent a total of 25 years in the military.
“For me it was a learning experience and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in, but I was not facing the wars or anything like that, because once I switched over to the Air Force a lot of that was totally out of my reach,” she says.
As a married woman, and eventually a single mother, she lived off-base in Denver and commuted to work at bases as far away as Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and Greeley National Guard Base. She served in Germany, at stations the locations for which remain secret. Today, she too lives in the housing for homeless women veterans being provided in Denver by the VA and Volunteers of America.
Over the course of her career, she watched an increasing number of women joining an increasingly intermingled military.
“I do remember the problems that some of the women had with the men, and this has been undercover for years, and nobody was listening,” she says.
She watched people leave the military immediately after their service in Vietnam, and look back later on that choice with regret.
“A lot of people that I knew decided to get out then, but now they’re going, ‘I wish I had stayed,’ but it was the trauma of what they had gone through that made that decision,” she says. “Depending on where they were at their service time, they would not get all the benefits that they would need because they got out too early, so maybe 10 years down the line, you go, ‘Oh no.’ That happens. But at that time, I can see, if they’re traumatized, they’re not asking the right questions because they don’t know what the right questions are.”
Like veterans of every generation, she is concerned by what she is seeing on the news regarding Iraq.
“Usually I don’t discuss that, because I am a veteran, but I don’t think we should have ever gone in the first place, and now I’m like, ‘No, here we go again. Stop, stop, stop,’” she says, her shaking head in her hands. “Because it’s wasting our younger people’s lives and it’s wasting lots of money that should be here taking care of issues like I have or women who were single and non-military needing help just to keep a shelter over their heads — but they won’t listen to me,” she adds with a chuckle.
“That’s very frustrating for me to see this going on and we’re literally back at square one, but nobody seems to remember that the president inherited all of this stuff. And he’s like, ‘I have no clue what to do, help me guys,’ and they sit there and twiddle their thumbs like, ‘This is your problem,’ but it’s not, it’s a national problem. … They need to ask and really talk to both the men and women who’ve been over there and find out what’s really going on over there from their view. … The problem is that most of the feedback they’re getting back, they don’t want to hear, because it’s opposite of what they want to do and they’re not understanding that what they’re doing may not be what needs to be done.”