Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Mourning the Dream of Fallujah

Iraqi strongholds of democracy are falling to the insurgents.

As Iraq has steadily fallen back into the hands of the insurgents, many of the veterans who fought to make it safe for democracy have despaired, many finding their symptoms of PTSD increasing as they realize the futility of their sacrifices.

The worst blows came late last year when Ramadi and Fallujah, both major battlefields for American and Iraqi soldiers, fell with only token resistance from the Iraqi Army.   

“A lot of vets were quite upset about it,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea told me this week. “But I was just very disappointed.”

It was a bitter disappointment, though, because Zacchea had been in charge of training the Iraqi Army a decade before, and he’d built close bonds with many of the Iraqis that he fought with. In fact, Zacchea was the first American honored by the Iraqi government with the Order of the Lion of Babylon.

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On Veterans Day 2004, while clearing buildings during the height of Operation Phantom Fury, the second battle for Fallujah, Zacchea had his shoulder broken by a rocket-propelled grenade that exploded just behind him. As he hit the ground, chips of concrete blew into his face from sniper bullets.

“They’d try to get one Marine down in an open area and try to lure the other Marines to come get him and then they’d pick them off,” Zacchea told Entrepeneur.com. “I was the bait in the trap.”

Two other Marines managed to pull Zacchea to safety, and he elected to stay with his unit rather than being airlifted to Germany for treatment. For a fuller account of Zacchea’s combat experience – and the aftermath – see chapter 5 of my book, Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI.

Bitter as the disappointment was, it forced Zacchea to take a hard look at Iraq and the American intervention in their civil war, so he wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Sarasota, Fla., Herald Tribune, to be published last month, timed to coincide with the visit to Sarasota of former President W. Bush.

First he listed the facts: that nearly 4,500 American service members were killed and 965,000 vets have been treated at VA hospitals, many for PTSD and TBI. About 914,000 vets have filed disability claims with the VA, leading to a cost of $1 trillion, plus another estimated $1 trillion per decade for the next 50 or 60 years.

All for nothing. America didn’t win the war, and the Iraqi people are living in conditions far worse than they endured under Saddam Hussein. Some 134,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in that conflict, and another 4 million were displaced and became refugees.

“The U.S. is neither more secure nor better off for our nine-year military failure in Iraq,” wrote Zacchea, who was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor with a gold star in lieu of a second award. “”President Bush deployed 2.6 million American service members into combat in Iraq, and our nation has nothing to show for it.”

Adding salt to an open wound, Congress passed the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act, which cut benefits for retired and disabled veterans to 1 percent below the rate of inflation, just as Anbar Province was falling to the insurgents.

“Thus the Americans who suffered the worst consequences from the war are asked to sacrifice even more,” Zacchea wrote. “This violates every American’s sense of fairness.”

This week, House Speaker John Boehner tried to repeal the cut in vets’ benefits by tying it to a measure to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government running, but he threw in the towel a day later, saying that conservative Republicans opposed the plan and House leaders worried the Democrats would not go along with it.  

“These are the Republicans, the richest 1 percent of our population, unwilling to pay for the expenses of the war they incurred,” says Zacchea.

In his Op-Ed piece, Zacchea’s conclusion is this: “The American people have been enormously injured by the Iraq war as a nation, and we will continue suffering from the tragic consequences of President Bush’s aggressive war of choice, a failed neo-conservative exercise in imperial adventurism.

“I share this lesson: NEVER AGAIN should the U.S. wage an aggressive war of choice, on credit, and then not pay for the long-term legacy costs of the war, especially the medical care and benefits of our wounded, injured, ill, disabled or retired veterans.”

My sentiments exactly! Most of the other ‘Nam-era vets I’ve spoken with are saying the same thing, wondering how we got sucked into another civil war and whether we’d learned anything from our previous failures.

Obviously, Zacchea was among those seriously damaged by the war in Iraq. He received a military retirement as a result of his wounds and returned home with a huge load of anger. He married the woman he had been dating, but war had changed him, as Marci discovered several years into their marriage.

“He found out that one of his Iraqi interpreters had been killed,” she told me. “We got into a terrible fight, and he started throwing things. I tried to lock myself in the bathroom, but I couldn’t because he was right behind me. I was afraid he was going to hit me, so I brought my hand up in self-defense, but he didn’t hit me. Finally he left, and I locked the door. There was a lot of noise out there, so I stayed in the bathroom for about an hour. When it quieted down, I opened the door and found it blocked by a bunch of furniture and chairs and boxes and things.”

That anger, often unpredictable, occurred several times. “I destroyed the house on several occasions, and once when I was buying flowers for my wife, I got into an altercation with the clerk,” he told me. “She was trying to close up and didn’t want to make change for me, and I was very aggressive. She finally threw the change at me, and I caught it in my left hand and grabbed her throat with my right hand and I started to squeeze. That frightened her and it frightened me, and I ran out of the store.”

But counseling has helped, and Marci has persevered. They had a little boy, Colin, a couple of years ago, and Zacchea found that fatherhood has been hugely therapeutic. “He follows me everywhere and wants to do just exactly what I’m doing. It’s wonderful. But having a son innocent of Iraq makes me want to protect him from the consequences of my service.”

That’s not easy. “This is a long-term process,” he says, “and I still have days when I can’t get out of bed due to the blinding migraine headaches.”

Zacchea also suffered short-term memory loss and his sense of taste disappeared, both potential symptoms of traumatic brain injury. The VA refused to let see a neurologist, so he finally went to nearby Yale University, requested an independent test and was diagnosed with TBI. He went back to the VA, showed them the diagnosis and challenged them to disprove it. Finally, the VA agreed and also diagnosed him with TBI.

Zacchea returned from combat to his job as a commodities analyst for a big brokerage firm in Stamford, Conn., but it didn’t take long before he was fired, a circumstance he now believes was a blessing in disguise.

He ended up by starting the Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Disabled Veterans at the University of Connecticut in 2009, and the non-profit organization has helped 55 veterans start their own businesses so far.

The VA estimates that each disabled vet will cost the government more than $1 million in benefits and health care, but Zacchea says his program reduces those costs.

“Over time, the cost of caring for veterans increases,” he told Hartford Business. “Veterans get into a negative-reinforcing loop, a downward spiral of health, unemployment and unstable living conditions. The three things feed off each other. Our program is really an intervention into the economic life of the veteran, by which we give him or her the tools to create self-employment and financial independence. This creates a positive-reinforcing loop for stable housing and mental health.”  

Zacchea also works with a number of Connecticut-area businesses to promote the hiring of vets.

“My sole mission these days is to help people whose lives have been shattered by this war, vets primarily but also their families and others,” he told me.

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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