Pressing Issues: The Hidden Victims of Conflict in Iraq

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By: Greg Mitchell

My vote for Iraq reporter of the year goes to a low-profile journalist who did not cover the war itself and has never even been to Baghdad. His name is Mark Benjamin, 33, and he serves as investigations editor for United Press International out of Washington, D.C. E&P has documented his work since last autumn, and now the heavy hitters ? The New York Times and The Washington Post ? are following his lead, taking a long look at the forgotten American victims of the war: the injured, the traumatized, and the suicides.

It was quite a February for Benjamin. Early in the month he was awarded second prize in the annual Raymond Clapper Memorial Awards for Outstanding Washington Reporting. The judges cited, in particular, his work last October in revealing that hundreds of soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga., were being kept in hot cement barracks without running water while they waited, for as long as months, for medical care. (Twelve days later he exposed ghastly conditions at Fort Knox in Kentucky.)

This was one of those rare stories that produced quick and measurable results rather than mere promises. Army Secretary Les Brownlee flew to Fort Stewart, new doctors were dispatched and within a month the barracks had been closed. Pentagon officials later declared they would spend $77 million this year to help returning troops get better treatment. And the media started paying more attention to the injured. Until then the 2,000 non-fatal casualties were rarely mentioned.

Benjamin also was one of the first reporters to link U.S. illnesses and deaths in Iraq (and elsewhere) to possible side effects of various vaccines. And he was first to closely analyze non-combat injuries and ailments in Iraq ? a step E&P advocated as long ago as last July. Benjamin showed that one in five medical evacuations from Iraq were for neurological or psychiatric reasons. He followed that with a probe of the unnervingly high suicide rate among soldiers in Iraq, and also revealed that two returning soldiers had killed themselves at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington (a fact the military had kept hidden).

Now these issues are finally gaining a wider airing.

In a Feb. 15 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Sara Corbett profiled several badly-damaged veterans of the 101st Airborne Division, now back home and coping with “sleepless nights, restless days, fractured relationships and vials of pills that help with the pain ? but not enough.” The number of injured in Iraq now tops 3,000 (counting accidents) with more than 550 qualifying as psychiatric casualties. Due to body armor, fewer die in Iraq; they get to live another day, but without arms or legs, or working stomachs, or fully functioning brains.

More than 100,000 troops will return to the U.S. this year and many are likely to display the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress found in Vietnam vets. “There will be problems,” one soldier, who came home without his right arm, told Corbett. “There’ll be a lot of short fuses, a lot of intolerance. People are going to have to be patient with these guys.”

Four days later, Theola Labbe in The Washington Post, in a front-page report, explored another one of Benjamin’s pet issues. There have been at least 21 suicides among our troops in Iraq ? well above normal rates for the Army ? and this number does not include many others still under investigation, nor the two cases at Walter Reed and others on the home front. An Iraq vet recently killed himself at a Shoney’s Inn in Tennessee, possibly by drinking antifreeze and Drain Pro, the Baltimore Sun reported last month.

Labbe added to these facts the wrenching testimony of the soldiers’ families, who reported difficulties getting details on the deaths from the military. “We call them, we have questions, we want to know, and they don’t have anything to tell us,” one widow said. “They don’t have nothing to say, and that’s not right.” The mother of another suicide drove around a nearby town for three hours on a tip that a sergeant who knew her dead son was home on leave (she didn’t find him).

Why the high suicide rate? Trish Wood, a researcher for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, told me recently, “The spike happened after Bush declared ‘major combat operations’ over. The troops found themselves in a very dangerous place, with no firm date that they would return home, surrounded by Iraqis who, if not hostile, were indifferent ? certainly not bestowing the ‘sweets and flowers’ the Iraqi exiles and the administration had predicted.” Mark Benjamin told me last week that he fears a “large cluster” of suicides in the coming months as tens of thousands of troops rotate home.

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