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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Iraq War—On Drugs -- In These Times

The Iraq War—On Drugs -- In These Times

The Iraq War—On Drugs

BY Terry J. Allen

Ready for deployment is not the same as mentally healthy, and the army's long-term interests smack hard against its need for warm bodies, no matter how dangerous continued action may be to an individual's mental health.

Wounded U.S. soldiers are being patched up and returned to battle before they are healed. The wounds in this case are to the psyche, caused by the trauma and horror that are as integral to war as guns and death.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, when “suck it up” fails to snap a soldier out of depression or panic, the Army turns to drugs. “Soldiers I talked to were receiving bags of antidepressants and sleeping meds in Iraq, but not the trauma care they needed,” says Steve Robinson, a Defense Department intelligence analyst during the Clinton administration.

Sometimes sleeping pills, antidepressants and tranquilizers are prescribed by qualified personnel. Sometimes not. Sgt. Georg Anderas Pogany told Salon that after he broke down in Iraq, his team sergeant told him “to pull himself together, gave him two Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, and ordered him to sleep.”

Other soldiers self-medicate. “We were so junked out on Valium, we had no emotions anymore,” Iraq vet John Crawford told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. He and others in his unit in Iraq became addicted to Valium.

The issues around mental health and medication are exacerbated for the more than 378,000 troops who have served multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) caused by a previous tour are cropping up in later ones.

“It concerns us when we hear military doctors say, ‘It’s wonderful that we have these drugs available to cope with second or third deployments,’” Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association told In These Times.

“But that statement makes military spouses cringe,” she continues, “Soldiers are saying ‘we don’t have time to recover.’”

Marine psychiatrist Cmdr. Paul S. Hammer confirmed to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Rick Rogers that Marines with PTSD are returning to Iraq.

In many cases, their problem is labeled stress. “Army docs have told me that commanders pressured them not to diagnose PTSD because it would cut into combat power—the ability to project men and women into war,” says Robinson. “The docs admit that the decision [to misdiagnose] is unethical, but are unwilling to take the huge career risk of becoming a whistle blower.”

“The military has an obligation to ensure your readiness,” says Raezer. “It is in its long-term benefit to have the person healthy.” But those goals may conflict with themselves and with reality. Ready for deployment is not the same as mentally healthy, and the army’s long-term interests smack hard against its need for warm bodies, no matter how dangerous continued action may be to an individual’s mental health.

All these factors promote that classic American solution: Better living through chemistry. When effective, antidepressants and sleeping pills can enable a soldier to get back in action—either from a huddle of terror and disgust, or increasingly, from back home to serve an additional tour.

But the use of brain-altering medications must be monitored for effectiveness and safety, which is beyond the Army’s capability in Iraq. The medications can take weeks to kick in, dangerously interact with other medications or fail to work at all. Side effects can include organ damage and thoughts of suicide.

But if the problem is bad for the occupying army, it is far worse for the Iraqi civilians, who have few medical resources and no end in sight to the constant fear and deprivation that occupation has brought.

“The [Iraqi] Ministry of Health says since the U.S. invasion there’s been a 35 percent jump in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder [in Iraqis],” reported NPR Baghdad correspondent Jamie Tarabay.

Keith Humphreys of U.S. Veterans Affairs documented a substantial rise in drug use in Iraq resulting from the terrible stress of daily life. Drugs that would require a prescription in the United States are available in drug stores and many Iraqis are turning to them for relief.

Former biology undergraduate Rorla Monere began taking sleeping pills to dull the pain and fear after witnessing the kidnapping of a close friend who was thrown into a car and later raped; a suicide car bomb left another of Monere’s close friends in a wheelchair. Afraid to go out, Monere stays at home, terrified that someone will storm the house.

“The pills don’t have any effect anymore,” she told NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “because I take so many of them. I just want my day to finish. I spend it alone. … My wish is to die, to be free and rest. Better than this slaughter.”

Some U.S. soldiers know how she feels. In a May 2 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote, “Last year’s suicide rate was the highest since 1993. Eighty-three Army soldiers on active duty committed suicide, 25 while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan—a 24 percent increase over the prior year. I find it simply astonishing that the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis facing our Armed Forces does not compel you to action.”

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ishtar Rising...: Ethiopia's River of Death

Ishtar Rising...: Ethiopia's River of Death

Ethiopia's River of Death
A handful of tribal Christians are fighting child sacrifice.

The healthy infant boy's top teeth came in before his bottom teeth. For this, elders of the Kara tribe in Ethiopia's primitive Omo River region determined that the child must die.

The child was mingi—"cursed" according to superstition. With every breath, the elders believed, the boy was beckoning an evil spirit into their village. It was the sacrifice of one child for the good of the entire tribe, a rite that elders had witnessed for untold generations.

Less clear was what to do about the boy's dead twin. After some debate and an examination of goat intestines, the elders decided the dead twin must have been mingi too. They dug up the corpse, bound it to the living boy, paddled a canoe into the center of the swiftly moving Omo River, and threw them both into the cold, brown waters.

That was five years ago. Several years ago, regional officials had begun taking action—threatening prison for those complicit in mingi killings. But at best, officials are equipped to step in only after a child has been murdered. So, in the villages of southern Ethiopia, a region the size of Texas with few roads or infrastructure, a few concerned tribespeople started an orphanage for cursed children. Yet the orphanage is mired in controversy, and meanwhile, few have challenged the underlying fear of mingi.

But one small band of Christians in one tribe, along with other supportive Christians, has pledged to protect these cursed children until mingi is no more. They are determined to show tribal elders that there is something "stronger than mingi"—the power of Jesus Christ. Earlier this year, I traveled to the hard-to-reach Ethiopian river valley to hear their story.

Modern-Day Child Sacrifice

Bona Shapo, a tribal elder, took me to where mingi children are being sacrificed. He steered his dugout canoe through the crocodile-infested waters of the Omo River, guiding the craft beneath a crumbling precipice near the stick-and-thatch village of Korcho. Across the river, Colobus monkeys whooped and howled, stirring Marabou storks from their perches on a stand of acacia.

"This is where they do it," says Bona, who had stood on these muddy banks the day the boys were thrown into the river.

There has been little modern research on mingi. Elders single out for death children who are born out of wedlock, have damaged genitals, or whose top baby teeth emerge before the bottom ones. Kara elders believe keeping this traditional practice is crucial to tribal survival. Allowing a mingi child to live among their people, they fear, will cause the rains to cease and the sun to grow hotter.

"If they have mingi, there will be no water, no food, no cattle," Bona says. "But when they throw the baby away, everything is good again. So yes, it is sad, but we are thinking about the village, the family, all the people."

Tribal parents tolerate the killing. After Erma Ayeli gave birth, elders took her newborn. She was not permitted to nurse him, hold him, or see him. "I think he must have been a beautiful boy," she says. "I wanted to keep him."

Her chin sinks into the colorful beads draped around her neck. Erma still grieves over her son's death—but she does not question it. "There was no other option," she says.

Sex outside of marriage is acceptable among the Kara. But if a woman becomes pregnant before participating in a marriage ceremony, as Erma did, her child is considered kumbaso—a mingi curse that occurs when parents fail to perform the appropriate rites before conceiving.