Since Veterans Day, Thomas E. Mahany, a 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran, has been on a hunger strike in front of the White House to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mahany recently wrote a letter to President Obama calling on him to "withdraw our military men and women from the Middle East now." He said he plans to only drink water "until specific action is taken by your administration and our military to stem the tragic and ever-increasing rise in the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)" that has seen a meteoric rise over the years among those serving in the military.
Earlier this week, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, told reporters that suicides among veterans and active-duty soldiers have already reached a record high this year and show no signs of abating.
As of November 16, 140 soldiers on active duty have taken their own lives. The cause of death of 71 veterans this year have been identified as suicide. The suicide rate for 2008 was the worst in three decades, and in January 2009, 24 soldiers killed themselves - more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And hundreds of thousands more suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injury due in large part to multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mahany said his efforts thus far have gone unnoticed by the public. Although, he said he has received a good response from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts).
Kerry "said he was working on new legislation, and what I wanted to work on is reinstating the draft," said Mahany, an artist from Royal Oak, Michigan, in a telephone interview Thursday. "That's one way we can work on a cause and not just effect. Effect is after the fact. What we need to do is we need to stop recycling our limited troops and get more troops in there, and the best way to do that is a draft. The other alternative is to just bring everyone home, but something has to be done because it's not fair. It's not democratic. It's a violation of our own human rights, and that's hypocritical because that's supposedly what we're fighting for - human rights."
Kerry's office did not respond to requests for comment.
As for how he was holding up, Mahany said, "O.K., I'm fine," and he said that it's the first seven days that are the hardest. "I'm past that," he said, and he said that hunger isn't a problem, but "lack of energy is a problem." Going on his tenth day, he said he is sleeping at night at a home for veterans against the war. He said he's prepared to stay "as long as it takes."
Talking about the passers-by who don't say much, Mahany said, "People passing by don't really pay any attention. That's the biggest part of the problem - that's why we are where we are - because of the complacency of the common man and not being connected to the problem." He said that many people don't care about those suffering with PTSD.
Mahany, who also spent 29 days fasting for peace in Vietnam back in May 1970, wrote Obama, "I served in Vietnam and I also lost a brother-in law to suicide caused by PTSD. He had two young sons. I have seen firsthand what this can do to a family.
In taking my action, I hope to elicit for you, from the peace-loving people of this nation, moral support sufficient to spiritually bolster you as you make your decision concerning our military presence in Afghanistan."
He called for Obama to "please end this needless, incessant war making. We have long ago surpassed humanely reasonable demand exacted upon the fruit of our middle class as well as wrought excessive death and destruction on unwitting civilians in foreign lands. Let us now tone down the hatred and stop the violence that has engulfed our society."
As of Thursday afternoon, Mahany had not gotten a response from the Obama administration. In his letter to Obama, he wrote, "Sir, I pray you find the strength to make the honorable choice and the courage to implement it" and, talking about those serving in the military, "Take them away from the ordeal of continually dealing with the relentless and senseless mortality which surrounds them. Deal with the cause, not just the effect."
Mahany said that he and many other veterans, along with some student activists in the Washington, DC-Baltimore area, plan to hold a demonstration on the steps of Lincoln Memorial at noon on Thanksgiving.