By: Greg Mitchell
All deaths are tragic, especially when young lives are lost in an unnecessary war after all hope for a meaningful victory has passed. Those of us of a certain age ? boomers-verging-on-geezers ? may recall the early 1970s when stories of suicides and crippling mental trauma associated with Vietnam veterans belatedly emerged in the press. No doubt some of that was triggered by the growing realization that countless soldiers had died, and were still dying, in vain ? wasted, in every sense of the word.
We are witnessing the same phenomenon today in regard to Iraq,
with newspapers only now starting to look behind the routine (and seemingly endless) reporting of American fatalities ? and finding that many are not what they seem to be. Last month at E&P Online, I examined the deaths of a soldier reported by the military (and thus the press) as being killed by insurgents, who was actually murdered by our allies, the Iraqi police ? and another who killed herself in Iraq (listed as a death by “non-hostile gunshot”) shortly after she protested the torture of prisoners.
But I also directed readers to a story in the Albany, N.Y., Times Union by Kate Gurnett, who looked into the death of a local Navy medic, a 33-year-old mother of three who had just returned to her family from Iraq ? and inexplicably committed suicide. The paper had carried her death notice on Oct. 21 without any mention of the suicide (she simply “died suddenly”), which may be customary, but highly misleading. So how did Gurnett get that story?
She tells E&P that the paper had received several calls from neighbors who were troubled by what had happened to Jeanne “Linda” Michel. Gurnett, as luck would have it, had just returned from a state Mental Health Association meeting where there was much talk of Iraq returnees suffering mental illness, along with reports of three recent vet suicides in an area just north of Albany.
Gurnett talked to friends of the dead medic and visited tribute message boards, where those who served with her had expressed utter surprise. Only then did she sit down with the woman’s husband, Frantz Michel, who also had served in Iraq. It turned out that she had worked at a strife-torn prison in Iraq where riots had taken place and prisoners had been killed. Suffering from depression, she was given the anti-depressant Paxil ? which was cut off when she returned home, a step known to have often disastrous consequences.
Frantz Michel blamed the Navy for not giving his wife the help she needed to cope, and asked the haunting question: Should someone who needed Paxil be anywhere near a combat zone to start with? Of her suicide, he said, “She would never leave her children,” revealing her shattered emotional state in deciding to do just that.
So while Jeanne Michel’s name doesn’t show up on any official list of American military deaths in the war, Iraq killed her just as certainly.
“I wanted to tell her story,” Gurnett explains. “I thought she deserved at least that. I really did not want her to be forgotten, to just go away and quietly die in the corner of her house all alone, no one knowing what happened to her. It was compelling on so many levels.” It also made the reporter realize, with regard to the death toll in Iraq, that “there is a lot there that we’re not seeing.” For example, “how many of those accidental weapons discharges are actually suicide?”
Here at home, and rarely mentioned in the press, tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Vets in “overwhelming” numbers “come home and get reams of information” on how to cope with mental distress but “they can’t make sense of this documentation,” Gurnett reports. Since her story ran, she has received a lot of mail from readers who had “a really bad time with withdrawal from Paxil.” She also heard from Michel’s supervisor in Iraq, who said her death “left him feeling so lost ? how could this have happened?”
The military, meanwhile, knows it’s got a problem, she observes: “They help you navigate around the bureaucrats who want to cover stuff up. Like at a corrupt police force, it’s denial, distortion, and disinformation.”
She also points to the media’s reluctance to show images of fallen soldiers in the field. “That says it right there,” she says. “It’s total denial.” Newspapers, she adds, are not doing enough overall to probe the untold number of lives fractured by Iraq: “If we’re going to be the fourth estate, we need to investigate and devote staff to this. I think newspapers are making enough money ? they should not be cutting staff and instead should be doing more investigating. It’s why we’re here.”