Less Than Citizens (Part One): People of Fort Drum

Saturday, 12 December 2009 09:55 By Nick Mottern, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Less Than Citizens (Part One): People of Fort Drum
(Photo: The U.S. Army)

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On I-81 in Watertown, New York, is a huge billboard: "Welcome Home & Thank You 10th Mountain Division," sponsored by Holiday Inn Express (see photo below). To the best recollection of an employee of the motel, it has been there since the place was built in 2006.

I visited Watertown, home of Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division, in November 2009 because the Army Times newspaper, owned by the Gannett Company Inc., refused to run a full-page ad carrying an article of mine published in Truthout on October 22, 2009, entitled "Killing and Dying in the New Great Game."

Also see: Part Two.

Army Times also refused to sell a banner ad on their website that would link to the article, which documents the interest of the US government in assisting ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and other major firms by securing a pathway through Afghanistan for oil and gas pipelines and electric lines.


(Photo: Nick Mottern)

In the article, I also encourage military personnel to decline to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the illegality of the US presence there.

As a person who volunteered to go to Viet Nam in 1962 based in part on erroneous government information, I wanted my article to appear in a publication specifically for military personnel (it would also have appeared in Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force Times, all news weeklies that are part of Gannett's Army Times Publishing Company Inc.) When I read that many soldiers from Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division would likely to be sent to Afghanistan in the expansion of the war there, I decided to go to Watertown to hand out copies of the article personally to any soldiers or their family members whom I might encounter.

The 10th Mountain Division is the most deployed division in the Army since it was formed in World War II, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Syracuse's The Post Standard reported on November 9, 2009, that the 10th has had 219 of its number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Its 3rd Brigade Combat Team, with about 3,000 soldiers, has begun to come home from Afghanistan, having suffered 24 deaths since May, the paper said, most killed by roadside bombs. A division spokesman told the paper that the 3rd had experienced 171 casualties caused by improvised explosive devices in the same period.

The division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team has just arrived in Iraq, and its 1st Brigade's tour to Iraq was cancelled and it is likely to go to Afghanistan.

An Army World

In preparation for my trip, I sought out people doing peace work in the Watertown area and was directed to Roland Van Deusen, a local representative of Veterans for Peace. Roland, in addition to his antiwar efforts, has been working on projects to assist veterans including getting reductions in their property taxes, providing phone cards to Veterans Administration (VA) patients and pushing Congress to pass laws assisting veterans exposed to depleted uranium which is used in various ammunition. Roland, now retired, worked as a substance abuse counselor and has years of experience working with soldiers and ex-soldiers at Fort Drum and in the jail/prison system in the Watertown area.

On November 18, I drove north from my home near New York City to Binghamton, then up I-81 to Syracuse. From there I continued on I-81, passing for an hour and 15 minutes through rolling hills, dotted with farms and a few small communities, before seeing the billboards of Watertown. In Syracuse I was told that sometimes snow drifts across I-81, isolating Watertown, and seeing the vast, flat expanses around me, bleak with the black, grey and brown of leafless fall trees, I believed it.

Watertown, just south of the St. Lawrence River and The Thousand Islands, was once a wealthy city of mills powered by the Black River. Deindustrialization hit Watertown in the mid-1900's, along with many other US cities, and today its population of about 26,000 is very dependent economically on Fort Drum. Fort Drum, according to its web site, is the largest single employer in Northern New York, putting $1.7 billion into the area in Fiscal Year 2008.

Driving from I-81 along Route 342, then up Route 11 to the busy, four-lane Iraqi Freedom Drive that enters the Fort Drum, I found the strip malls, used car dealerships, housing developments and big box stores that have sprouted up among working and dilapidated farms with the growth of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Fort Drum covers 107,265 acres and houses at any one time some 18,000 soldiers (trainees and base personnel), along with about 16,000 dependents. Fort Drum supports "the mobilization and training of almost 80,000 troops annually," according to its web site, employs about 5,000 civilians and has housing developments, police, fire and medical services, stores, a hotel, recreational facilities and a variety of family services.

Fort Drum is like a huge military space ship landed in isolated, rural surroundings, self-sufficiently providing for its occupants and benevolently employing local people. Seeing the variety of services noted on the Fort Drum web site, it is hard to imagine that it and the Army are anything but supportive and charitable, providing on the base a family-friendly utopia: "A place where Civilians and Soldiers enjoy working and living side by side, are proud of their accomplishments, and strive for excellence every day."

On November 20, Roland and I set out to distribute the Truthout article at shopping centers and Jefferson Community College (JCC) in Watertown.

Our sole intent was to give the article to Army personnel and their families, but we discovered immediately in talking with these people a level of anxiety and suffering that needed reporting.

"Just Numbers"

Our first stop was the Wal-Mart parking lot near the main entrance to Fort Drum. We offered people the Truthout article, printed on 11x17 sheets, and a small fold-out card on GI rights that contains the number for GI Rights Hotline (877-447-4487). The hotline provides counselors for military people who have questions about conscientious objection, harassment and discharge from military service, among other things.

Virtually everyone with whom we spoke was connected with the Army in some way. This is a representative sampling of what they said.

Two soldiers in their 20's, with close-cropped hair and wearing camouflage fatigues, took the article and showed only passing interest in it. In answer to the question of how they got their information on the war, one said that he paid little attention to the press because it could not be trusted. He said that, in any case, he had a job to do, and he would focus on that.

A black woman in her 40's told me that her husband was about to leave for his fourth deployment, to Afghanistan. She indicated that he believes this war is a total waste of time. Judging from her age, I think her husband is getting near retirement. I gave her a copy of the article and said that if corporations want to run gas and oil pipelines through Afghanistan they should hire their own army. As I said "hire their own army," she picked up on the phrase like a musician picking up on a riff and finished the sentence with me, saying: "Hire their own army." I told her that Army Times did not want to run the article in an ad, and she said: "Oh," as in "Oh, really." I asked her if she would like to take copies to hand out, and she said she definitely would. She also took a GI rights card.

A chief warrant officer and a captain took the article from Roland and showed serious interest in it. He was impressed that these men in leadership positions would even consider taking it.

A 25-year-old woman with her 17-month-old son said that she and her husband were married when they were 18. He immediately went into the Army, and they came to Fort Drum. She has a five-year-old daughter born nine months after they were married and while her husband was in Afghanistan. He did two tours in Afghanistan, and on his last tour he broke his back when he jumped out of a helicopter wearing a backpack that was too heavy. He returned to Fort Drum in 2007 and is still being treated for the back injury, and he has PTSD. Her husband is due to be released from the Army shortly; she said the Army kept him in to give him treatment for his back. She has no use for the Army and can't wait to go back home to the West Coast. The soldiers are "just numbers" to the Army, she said.

She took copies of the article and the cards to hand out.

A woman in her late 30's with two children, driving a big SUV with gear strapped on top, said she and her husband had just arrived from Arizona and that he would leave shortly for Afghanistan. She said she was going to live in the area so that she could have the best possible information on how her husband is doing. She had the smile and hopefulness of a new person in town looking forward to, and hoping for, the best. She took the article and thanked me, possibly as a matter of politeness and friendship. Then I gave her the GI Rights card and explained that the hotline could provide counseling on how to get out of the military or help those who did not want to deploy. Her face fell immediately, her enthusiasm vanished, and it seemed that the thought that her husband might not leave might have hit very hard. She continued to be pleasant, but it was a strain for her. I thought it was possible that even a glimpse of freedom from the fear and anxiety of deployment was too much for her.

A woman in her 50's said that her husband is now in Kosovo and that he was in Afghanistan two years ago. "They say it is hard now (in Afghanistan)," she said, "it was hard then." "He has a hard time sleeping," she said.

After about an hour, two women Wal-Mart employees told us it was against store policy for us to be "soliciting" in the parking lot. Possibly they were responding to a complaint by a blond woman who told me, with some anger, that she had voted for the "previous president" and that she did not want to talk to me.

Roland and I then went to the JCC student center, which, he said, should be "target rich." The JCC web site says that 25-30 percent of the student body is "military or military related," but we found that almost everyone we met at JCC had some connection to the Army.

A 20-year-old woman, with a pretty, open face, said that her 41-year-old father had been in the Army since he was 18 and that he had been at home for only one of her birthdays. She said he had been in Iraq and Afghanistan and that he said he had been shot at and blown up and he wanted no more of this kind of duty. He was now teaching, although still in the Army. She said he did not want to discuss the details of his experiences.

She said that she has a "friend" in Afghanistan now, and as the conversation developed it was clear that she was intending to marry this 21-year-old. She said that he and his friends do not want to be there, are completely fed up. She wants him home and, she said, she does not want her life with him to be like what she experienced growing up.

I made the comment to her about the corporations needing to hire their own army if they wanted access to Afghanistan, and she looked directly at me and said: "Thank you!" She took the several copies of the article and the card.

A young woman, in her early 20's, said that her boyfriend is coming home from Afghanistan at Christmas, and she does not want him to go back. She took the article and the GI Rights card.


A 47-year-old transportation specialist, recently discharged from the Army, had been in Iraq. He said his job was to retrieve combat-damaged military vehicles, "sterilize" them and restore them to duty. I asked what he meant by "sterilize," and he said that is a nice way of saying cleaning out the gore of battle.
The man smiled a lot as we talked and was in a very good humor; I thought he smiled a little too much. Toward the end of our conversation, he might have sensed that he seemed too light-hearted, and he said he liked to joke as a "way of getting through."

He took the article, although his interest in it seemed minimal as he said that war is behind him now.


"Back to Combat on Medication"

As we talked with students, we learned of a forum to be held that afternoon, organized by a student group called Polis, focusing on how the proposed national health care legislation would affect treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and other mental health problems. One of the student organizers was very interested in the Truthout article and took copies to distribute, as did one of the JCC faculty.

I expected perhaps 10 students at the 12:30 to 1:50 PM forum, but about 50 came to the lecture hall, and, as it would develop, almost all their questions were about PTSD.

The experts on the panel were Dr. Spencer Falcon, a psychiatrist and medical director of Samaritan Hospital in Watertown, and Michael Pettinelli, a PTSD counselor with the Veterans Administration (VA) in Syracuse. Dr. Falcon, who was interested in seeing the article we were handing out, works with the military in combating PTSD, overseeing the Fort Drum-Samaritan Behavioral Health Clinic that has been opened recently in Watertown to expand PTSD treatment beyond the base and offer patients a more private place for treatment than they would have on the base. (Dr. Falcon said during the seminar that officers sometimes prefer coming to the Watertown clinic.)

In his opening remarks, Dr. Falcon said that Samaritan Hospital has 30 beds for treating PTSD patients and that there are 450 discharges a year of active duty soldiers. In addition, he said, the hospital handles 1,000 clinical PTSD visits a month from soldiers in addition to those being treated for substance abuse and mental health.

In the course of the presentation, Dr. Falcon said that the 3rd Brigade Combat Team was beginning to return home to Camp Drum from Afghanistan, and he said: "They're going to need a lot of help (with PTSD)" because, he explained in answer to a question, there is "an injury and mortality rate higher in the 3rd Brigade than other returning units." A number of the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade are already being treated for PTSD even before they get home, he said.

One of the students asked what the Army does when no treatment works in combating PTSD. Dr. Falcon said that first drug treatment is used, and if that does not work, the next step is electro-convulsive therapy. If these things don't work, the soldier would likely be hospitalized. He and Mr. Pettinelli said that they never give up in trying to help soldiers with PTSD.

Dr. Falcon also reported that researchers at Yale University are doing MRI studies of the brains of PTSD casualties to determine whether the most effective treatment is medication or "cognitive therapy," therapy in which the patient is encouraged to change patterns of thinking about their experiences.

Another student asked how the panelists decide when a person cannot be returned to combat. Dr. Falcon said the decision on whether to deploy a soldier is solely in the hands of the Army and based on the soldier's level of desire to go and whether his or her symptoms of PTSD are under control.

"Many people go back to combat on medication," he said; he said earlier in his presentation: "We send a lot of people with PTSD back to the war zone ... PTSD does not preclude you from going back to theater."

This information was surprising in view of Dr. Falcon's and Mr. Pettinelli's comments that there is a correlation between the number of times a soldier enters a combat zone and his or her likelihood of experiencing emotional shocks resulting in PTSD. Three or four deployments, Dr. Falcon said, means three or four times higher chances of experiencing PTSD.

A student asked if there is any way to prevent PTSD: "How can we send them and have less problems?" Dr. Falcon responded that Army has programs to prepare soldiers for deployment, to "harden people before they go so they won't be so symptomatic." The Army is also conducting studies, he said, looking for characteristics in people that would make them particularly vulnerable to PTSD and looking for "pre-existing stuff" that might bring on PTSD in combat.

Pettinelli pointed out that PTSD has a damaging affect not only on the soldier, but "the entire family system." Dr. Falcon said that there is an increase in the numbers of Fort Drum soldiers' families seeking counseling, and he also noted that families are not being treated consistently because of limitations in their health insurance coverage.

Another student asked whether soldiers with PTSD are blocked from advancement, and Dr. Falcon said that he thought not, that Maj. Gen. James Terry, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, is supportive of casualties of PTSD and has said a diagnosis of PTSD will not be an impediment to advancement. Roland said that "regardless of whether or not it's true (that soldiers with PTSD will be stigmatized), many GIs believe it, so they avoid treatment."

The Women

The next morning at breakfast before we set out for more leafleting, Roland and I discussed our experiences of the previous day.

I said that I could not imagine how the women can endure the anxiety of the daily fear of getting word that a loved one in the Army has been killed. Nor could I imagine having the emotional resources required to handle relations with a person who has gone for a full year into a combat zone, comes home, spends a year and returns to the combat zone, then does it again and yet again. Most of the women with whom we spoke seemed quite strong and operating within a framework that they understood and that they could make work for them. At the same time, it was clear that most did not like what they were experiencing. The women were much more willing to talk than the men, and they were more willing to consider the message of the article.

"I think that the women showed more emotion" than the men, Roland said. "The guys were stoic; that's their defense mechanism. The women showed a more sincere 'Thank You' (for the information we provided) because their skin in the game is their husband's; they're not earning any macho points for being in uniform. They have to worry about keeping their families together and are they going to have to raise their kids alone? The women - you could tell the way they took a deep breath when they said 'Thank You' - were much more in touch with their feelings."

When their husbands go on deployment, Roland said, "the women are living life on the installment plan ... it makes them feel how real it could be if they have to raise the kids on their own for the rest of their lives."

"If the American Public Knew ..."

At mid-morning we started distributing the article to people at the Salmon Run Mall, and collected the following stories before a security guard, who had been in the Navy in Viet Nam, asked us to leave. He did not want to tell me about his Viet Nam experience, he said, because that's how he handles it.

An Army sergeant in his mid-forties, honorably discharged, had been in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has PTSD and is getting private counseling. The message he got from command on his PTSD was: "You're faking it." He took a copy of the article from Roland.


I asked him how he got his news and whether he read Army Times. He said he read it from time to time. Of news organizations generally, he said: "They don't give the total information ... If the American public knew half of what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, we'd be out of there already."

He was clearly agitated as we talked, and at one point a woman with him tried to reach for his elbow to usher him away, but he stayed to finish the conversation.

A Canadian Army nurse in her mid-30's, who had come across the St. Lawrence with her husband to shop, had just returned from Afghanistan where she worked in a military hospital treating casualties. She and her husband, who is also in the Canadian Army but had not been to Afghanistan, were talking in a relaxed happy mood when I stopped them, but when I told them that I wanted to give them some information about Afghanistan, the lightness vanished from the woman's face and she became somber and almost wooden. She said she did not want to go back. She did not want to comment on whether there was a purpose to the military mission there because, she said, she had only seen what was going on inside the hospital.

I was returning home in the afternoon, but I wanted to visit with a few more students at JCC. I said goodbye to Roland, and he guided me back to the college, waved a peace sign from his car window and left for home. These are among those with whom I spoke.

A 35-year-old Army veteran, recently discharged, said he had been in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he has PTSD, is taking medication for it and is getting counseling. Then he said, in a very direct, surprising way: "I had a horrible dream last night."


He said he is fed up with the Army's "bullshit." I asked him if he had always felt that way, and he said: "I was gung-ho when I joined up ... kill 'em all." Now he wants no part of the Army. He said that the Iraqis and Afghanis should look after their own defense. The Afghanis have the idea that the Americans should do all the fighting, he said.

His tour in Iraq was much worse than the one in Afghanistan; in Iraq, he said, he saw friends blown apart.


A bookish, mild-mannered man who appeared to be in his mid-30's said that he had been discharged recently after 13-1/2 years in the Army. He said he had PTSD although he had not been in Iraq or Afghanistan. He joined the Army in 1990, and he said his anxiety began even before 9/11 and that it become more intense after that. He served in Bosnia and Kosovo.


While in the Army, he said, he spent only about half the time at home with his wife. He is getting a divorce, but is staying in Watertown because his two sons live there.

He said the VA clinic in nearby Carthage was not helpful with counseling, just providing him with the medication Effexor.

He said he was "lucky" compared to some of the men he encountered when he worked at Fort Drum in the "transition" office, processing soldiers out of the Army. One man was blinded from the flash of an explosion that burned his retina, another had the whole left side of his body "blown away," and there was one who had to be held up by a comrade to make his way through processing.

I asked him where he got his information about the wars, and he said the Army only tells you a little, only what you need to know to do your assigned task. He did not read Army Times much or follow the news.

The man was a gentle soul and spoke in a simple, direct way.


Leaving the JCC parking lot, headed for I-81 South, I felt that, in a small way, Roland and I had pierced, for at least a few people, what appears to be an eight-year blackout by the major US news companies of any information that would suggest that the US has commercial interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I had a solid feeling that, in distributing the article and the cards, Roland and I had given useful information to people who probably would never have seen it otherwise. It was also clear that the information was welcomed by people, mostly women, who are questioning what the federal government and Army are telling them about reasons for being in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I left Watertown, it was cold. Low, thick, grey clouds, driven by a freshening wind, were settling in, darkening the sky early, a few degrees away from dropping snow. The city's malls and motels, the billboards selling soldiers and their families housing, health care and cars, the commercialism, particularly the billboards claiming thanks and patriotism, all seemed particularly odd and sad in this Army town so engulfed in suffering generated by wars on the other side of the world.

Clearing the city limits, I passed into the larger, relatively war-free society of New York State and the United States, leaving behind a group of people who, I believe, are being profoundly exploited, whether consciously or not, by American society.

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Last modified on Thursday, 28 January 2010 09:22