Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan

Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan

by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard Brandeis University; Author of The Path Through Grief: A Compassionate Guide


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There's no real homecoming for many of our veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They may go through the motions of daily life in their hometowns, but the terrible sights and sounds of war are still fresh in their minds.

This empathic, inside look into the lives of our combat veterans reveals the lingering impact that the longest wars in our nation's history continue to have on far too many of our finest young people. Basing her account on numerous interviews with veterans and their families, the author examines the factors that have made these recent conflicts especially trying.

A major focus of the book is the extreme duress that is a daily part of a soldier's life in combat zones with no clear frontlines or perimeters. Having to cope with unrecognizable enemies in the midst of civilian populations and attacks from hidden weapons like improvised explosive devices exacts a heavy toll. Compounding the problem is the all-volunteer nature of our armed forces, which often demands multiple deployments of enlistees. This results in frequent cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and families disrupted by the long absence of one and sometimes both parents.

The author also discusses the lack of connectedness between civilian society and military personnel, leading to inadequate healthcare for many veterans. This deficiency has been highlighted by the urgent need to treat traumatic brain injuries in survivors of explosions and the high veteran suicide rate.

Bouvard concludes on a positive note by discussing some of the surprising and encouraging ways that the chasm between civilian and military life is being bridged to help reintegrate our returning soldiers. For veterans, their families, and especially for civilians unaware of how much our soldiers have endured, The Invisible Wounds of War is important reading.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616145538
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 07/24/2012
Pages: 245
Sales rank: 1,129,532
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard is the author of The Path through Grief: A Compassionate Guide, a number of books on human rights, and award-winning books of poetry. She is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. For many years she was head of the Political Science Department and a professor of political science at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

The Invisible Wounds of War

Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan
By Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-553-8

Chapter One

THE WARS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN: Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom


    To yield to force is an act of necessity not of will;
    It is at best an act of prudence.

    —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
    It could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

    Always enter a home with your right foot;
    the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

    O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
    It means Stop! Or I'll Shoot.

    Sabah el Khair is effective.
    It means Good Morning.

    Inshallah means Allah be willing.
    Listen well when it is spoken.

    You will hear the RPG coming for you.
    Not so the roadside bomb.

    There are bombs under the overpasses,
    in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

    There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
    in foogas, a sticky gel made of homemade napalm.

    Parachute bombs and artillery shells
    sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

    Graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
    I will kill you, American.

    Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
    walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

    There are men who earn eight dollars
    to attack you, five thousand to kill.

    Small children who will play with you,
    Old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

    and any one of them
    may dance over your body tomorrow.

    —Brian Turner


In the United States, the army is a volunteer army. It is carrying the burden and experiencing the dreadful consequences of two long wars, the longest in American history: Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Most of the soldiers have been redeployed many times to make up for the low number of troops. One marine was redeployed six times despite having sustained injuries. Because these wars are fought by a volunteer army, few Americans have any personal stake in them or even know about what is happening in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Previous wars were covered extensively by the media, but only in the past few years have the efforts of US soldiers on the ground been made public. Returning soldiers should be honored and respected for their sacrifices. Learning about the hidden wounds they carry home with them is a matter of human rights, not only because their suffering is unseen but also because so many of them receive neither adequate mental healthcare nor the support they need to regain social trust and to become reintegrated into society.

People enlist in the army for a number of reasons. For example, one woman wanted to get a job and thus get away from an abusive husband. Another woman was dissatisfied with her work and thought the army might be a good place for her. For yet another young man, becoming a soldier was a way out of a dangerous neighborhood; he hoped to build a better life.

Many young people enlist for socioeconomic reasons. They are promised that they will be able to retire after twenty years. They see the military giving them money or college opportunities that once only seemed like distant possibilities. Some young men and women enlist because their parents asked them to leave home and get a job. Many who just graduated from high school are looking for a purpose in life. A number of young people enlist to get away from dysfunctional families and seek a better life.

Among those who enlisted were many young men, like Noah Charles Pierce and Alexander Hohl, who had dreamed of joining the army since they were very young because they wanted to serve their country. A young man, a classics major at Dartmouth College, decided to join the Marines in 1998. It never occurred to him that he would end up in a combat situation. He felt he should join because he was privileged. There were young men who wanted to become heroes, and many of them did, but in ways that they never expected.

The impact of 9/11 was a major factor in increasing the number of volunteers, although, contrary to the claims of the Bush administration, there was no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Though many of those who joined the military had high hopes and a sense of purpose, a large proportion of those who came back were disillusioned and suffering from severe trauma.

National Guard units and reserve forces called up to active duty have drawn heavily on first responders. Those who volunteered often wanted to benefit from the education recruiters had promised them and that they couldn't afford otherwise. The use of the United States National Guard for overseas combat is a new role for this branch of the military. It has traditionally been used as a civil-defense branch of the armed forces, helping in domestic crises or national disasters. Yet more than 50 percent of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been drawn from the National Guard forces. These weekend warriors generally had full-time jobs, families, and ties to civilian communities. They were older and had a stable income before leaving for battle. But at the same time they may have lacked the intensive combat training, unit camaraderie, and strong leadership from nonactive-duty commanders. Also, in comparison with active-duty soldiers, a greater percentage have suffered from combat trauma when they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

For some soldiers, being in the military is a career. Perhaps over time, during the Iraqi war, some lost the sense of national purpose or sacrifice that might have helped them mitigate the hardships they experienced. But many of them were proud of what they accomplished even though the justification for the war shifted over time from hunting for weapons of mass destruction to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. In the end, they helped establish a supposedly democratic government, but one in which there is still a struggle for power among opposing Shiite groups, Sunnis, and Kurds. The prime minister of Iraq, Nour Kamel al-Maliki, is a Shiite, and the parliament does include Sunnis and Kurds, but Iraq is still suffering from recurring terrorist bombings because these factions remain at odds. Also, American influence is waning, as the military withdrew by the end of 2011, even as units of the highly secret Special Operations Forces were brought in and the American embassy is being rebuilt and protected by security forces. Meanwhile, the Iraqi prime minister has expanded his power and undermined the fragile democracy America tried to help create. These developments have affected the attitudes of some of the soldiers who served in Iraq in the final years of the war.

But for others, like the author-soldier Shannon Meehan, what prompted service in Iraq was a desire to put their officer training into practice and exercise leadership. Meehan's father had been in the military in several conflicts and had instilled in him a yearning for honor ever since he was a child. For a professional soldier like Paul C. Rosser, it was his duty to defend his country. And for the noted writer Brian Turner, who came from a military family, it was the desire to be part of that endeavor.


Saddam Hussein's Iraq was dominated by elite security units of the army, such as the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, Fedayeen Saddam, and a paramilitary force, all of which were part of the huge Baath Party. The soldiers were well trained, well armed, and politically loyal, and few of them died in the war. At the beginning of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer, the president's executive director of the Coalition Provisional Authority, fired all the Baathists and disbanded the Sunni-led soldiers. That left them jobless, and it helped foment a Sunni insurgency that continues today. In so doing, Bremer helped empower the deeply religious Shiite parties that eventually came to power. He paid no attention to the intelligence reports warning that the Iranian secret police were working in Iraq. He didn't appreciate that the open border with Iran was a problem, either. Yet, Sadr City, on the outskirts of Bagdhad, became one of the most dangerous places for US troops. It was named after Muktar el-Sadr's father, the Shiite leader who was killed in 1999 by Saddam Hussein's regime. There were many unemployed young men there who were placing explosive devices on the roads that US soldiers traveled. The city had a huge population that was oppressed under the Sunni regime, as well as many Iranian fighters who crossed the border to join in the battles. And there were many Shiite death squads.

Fallujah was another hostile place. Jaysh-al-Mahdi (JAM) is one of the major terrorist groups that operated there and in Diyala. It has close ties to Iran and is affiliated with the radical cleric Muktada al-Sadr. It infiltrated the local government and rose to positions of power. The mainstream media never covered it, while al Qaeda in Iraq, which was responsible for open, violent attacks, received substantial press coverage. Although there were other, smaller, groups, JAM and al Qaeda were responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians and Iraqi government officials.

There was yet another terrorist group the US Army had to deal with, the People's Mujahadin of Iran (Mujahadin-e Khaliq or MEK). They were Iranian ex-patriots who fought with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War to bring down the ayatollah of Iran. Although the MEK is Shia, its main objective is to control Iran. Thus its enemy is JAM because of its connections to the Iranian military. As a consequence, it aligned itself with al Qaeda to limit Iran's influence in Iraq, which helped to destabilize both countries.

From the start of the occupation, the US Army was confronted with the country's dire need for basic services, including water and electricity. But it had insufficient troops available even to prevent the widespread looting that occurred everywhere. Soldiers looked on as people emptied hospitals, homes, museums, libraries, and universities of anything they could carry away, including ammunition and even copper wires and electrical wiring ripped from the walls. The capital city was plagued by weeks of utter lawlessness while American soldiers stood by and watched helplessly because they were stretched too thin to intervene.

There were significant barriers between the US troops and the Iraqi culture. Few soldiers, diplomats, or reporters could speak more than a few words of Arabic, and there were few translators on the ground. That meant that for many Iraqis, young US soldiers did not appear as benevolent people carrying out their country's good intentions, but rather as a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance.

As a result, there were countless instances of tragic misunderstandings. After finding a cache of weapons that was hidden under a truck belonging to suicide bombers, soldiers were under orders to stop every car approaching a checkpoint. When a car carrying a large family failed to stop as ordered because they didn't understand the word stop, the car was gunned down. After lifting out the dead bodies of a mother and her children from that family, one of the soldiers broke down and wept. This kind of incident happened over and over again. Once a woman passed a convoy and raised a white scarf as a gesture of peace. But that gesture was misinterpreted and she was gunned down. Sometimes the reverse happened. What seemed like an innocent child playing on the side of the road turned out to be a terrorist who threw a grenade at a passing Humvee.

Former Defense secretary Robert Gates, who liked to refer to himself as the Soldiers' Chief, admitted that US troops were not prepared for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For servicemen and servicewomen, leadership and organizational support are essential to creating stability in their lives, especially when they are deployed in combat situations. One soldier recalls being a gunner in an armored truck that had a high center of gravity. It was nerve-racking because if the truck turned too quickly, it could easily turn over. He knew that IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were going off on the road and that there were frequent small-arms attacks on the street they traveled. Sometimes he would realize that he escaped death time and time again. He was given two weeks of superficial instruction, basic refresher training, and then he was sent to a base where he received more advanced training. He was originally in air defense artillery with Patriot missiles and studied air defense for a month. After that, he went to Fort Benning for three weeks, where his group was engaged in clerical tasks rather than actual training. Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was supposed to be relearning his job, had no relevance with what he would be faced with in Iraq. Rather than receiving weapons training, he spent his two weeks watching movies about equal opportunity and sexual harassment. By the time he arrived in Iraq, he felt completely lost and didn't feel that he was ready to meet the challenges he would face. He soon found himself behind the wheel of a truck that he wasn't qualified to drive. Despite not being prepared, he suddenly found himself in a gun turret in a combat zone. This was deeply anxiety inducing, particularly because, after he returned, he remembered how some of his best friends who went to Iraq had been blown up.

When they arrived in Iraq, many US soldiers felt that they had been trained to fight a battle against a conventional, uniformed army. They believed that the US military had such great superiority that the war would not last long, and that peace would be quickly secured and end with Iraqi elections. Instead they discovered that they were saddled with a multiplicity of goals: holding elections, making friends with local sheiks so that they could work together, providing water supplies and electricity for farms, and more. Sergeants found themselves consoling their severely wounded soldiers, going to frequent memorial services, and trying to keep up the flagging morale of their troops. Ultimately, they learned that befriending Iraqis who cooperated with them could cause the Iraqis to be killed. One soldier remembers that the home of his battalion's translator was bombed and the man and his family fled to another part of Iraq.

During the first two years of the war, Iraqi men and women would try to run for office, campaigning for votes for the first election of the new national assembly. A number of political parties were created. But then patrols began to find the bodies of those hopeful candidates after they had been tortured and killed. Frequently, Iraqis who sought to become newspaper editors, judges, or politicians were gunned down by insurgents as they went about their daily lives. Soldiers found themselves caught in a confusing war. On the one hand, they had to deal with the insurgents and militias from Sadr City. On the other, they were trying to help the country and depose Saddam Hussein.

The US military began a program to train and equip Iraqi security forces, army divisions, and police forces. But soon they discovered that one of these groups went into Sunni neighborhoods killing and kidnapping civilians. A short time later, al-Sadr began an uprising, and the Iraqi civil defense garrisons, police, and National Guard disappeared.

Besides the barrier of language, there were also two realities, one of which US soldiers were unable to fathom. There were always two conversations the Iraqis were having, one telling the Americans what they wanted to hear, to make them think that they were winning and to keep the money flowing, or even bring them a little peace. Then there were the conversations in Arabic they had among themselves right in front of the US forces. The Iraqis lived a double life. They were concerned with their own survival and their need to look after their children. In their neighborhoods, they were endangered from all sides.

Another notable barrier was the dress and appearance of the insurgents: "It was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Americans would bring in the heavy artillery and the troops. They would roll into Iraqi towns ready for a fight, and would invariably discover that the enemy had disappeared. Often the people they were looking for were standing a few feet away."

Shannon P. Meehan, a commander and a platoon leader, was in an impossible position, a situation with no clear winner, and the enemy was much more organized than the press revealed. He and his company were not confronting a formally trained army. They kept encountering new methods of inflicting damage with minimal manpower. They didn't know who the enemy was and they never felt safe, knowing that IEDs were all along the roads they traveled and that HBIEDs (house-borne IEDs) might detonate when the soldiers were inside. Once a soldier had to carry a wounded comrade down the stairs as his buddy's blood poured into his own mouth. That was an experience he could never forget and that marked him forever.


Excerpted from The Invisible Wounds of War by Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard Copyright © 2012 by Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 11

Introduction 13

Chapter 1 The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom 15

A Volunteer Army 17

Iraq 19

Afghanistan 24

Drawdown in Iraq 37

Drawdown in Afghanistan 40

The Media 44

Chapter 2 Homecoming and Parallel Lives 47

Women Warriors 62

Family Trauma 64

Taking Space 69

Chapter 3 Mothers of Servicemen and Servicewomen 73

Chapter 4 Spouses and Children of Servicemen and Servicewomen 101

Chapter 5 The High Rate of Suicides 123

The Facts 125

The Suicide of Spouses 130

People, Not Statistics 131

Noah Charles Pierce 134

Jeff Lucey 140

The Suffering of Families 149

Chapter 6 Healthcare 153

Women Warriors 158

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC 160

Home Base at the Massachusetts General Hospital 165

Project Share 170

Burgeoning Charities 170

Criminal Behavior 171

Chapter 7 Hidden Grief 177

Why We Grieve Alone 178

Minimizing the Losses Servicemen and Servicewomen Experience 180

Anger and Grief 183

The Grief of Returning with Mental and Physical Disabilities 184

Grief of the Parents 185

Grief of a Spouse 186

Children of Servicemen and Servicewomen 188

The Healing Power of Understanding 188

Chapter 8 Bridging the Chasm 191

Social Reintegration 192

Writing 193

Speaking the Unspeakable 194

Photography 196

Theater of War 198

The Soldiers Project 199

Give an Hour 203

Always Lost: A Meditation on War 204

Epilogue 211

Notes 215

Bibliography 235

Index 239

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