Iraq and Afghanistan: PTSD and G.I. Bill Reform

When the United States first declared War on Iraq in 2001, there was a tremendous amount of support for it due to the attack on the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001. Many young men and women hoped to seek revenge on the perpetrators of the attack, and avenge the death of the civilians that died that day. While this is a very noble sentiment, the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made it very difficult for returning veterans to assimilate into society. There are many contributing factors to the difficulties of this war, including the inability to distinguish innocent civilians from enemies, the lack of public involvement in the war, and the atrocities that are committed against civilians. To try and combat the difficulty that many returning soldiers are experiencing, the federal government has now amended the G.I. Bill another time, making it easier for those that have served after September 11 to acquire post was benefits, and transfer these benefits to their dependents.


While the Vietnam War was protested by a very large amount of citizens as the war continued to drag out, there has been a trend of returning veterans that have been protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most outspoken and widely recognized veterans is Thomas Young, who, like many young men and women enlisted to serve his country in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Within just five days of being deployed in Iraq, however, he was hit by a bullet that severed his spinal cord, and left his legs paralyzed. Since his return from the war, he has had a documentary called “Body of War” done on his life. This is an extremely eye opening documentary that has illuminated the struggles that he, like so many veterans, has experienced since his homecoming. He has since been divorced, is on thirty different types of medication, and has to use a catheter to use relieve himself. This demonstrates that even if one is lucky enough to survive the war, it does not mean that his problems have ended. In fact, in some ways the pain that he has experienced, and the suffering that his family has gone through has been prolonged by his survival. He was recently in the news again about a year ago, stating that he was deciding to let himself starve to death instead of continuing to suffer. While he has since changed his mind and continued living, the fact that he at one point considered death a better option reveals how poor his quality of life. As the financial toll of the war continues to skyrocket, one must remember that some families are paying much more than money. They are paying with suffering, as pain, fighting, divorce, and misery, which carry on even though the War in Iraq has ended.

Thomas Young
Thomas Young

It has been estimated that  19 percent of veterans returning from Iraq suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while only 11 percent of those returning from Afghanistan suffer from PTSD (Miller 908). While PTSD is present in all wars, it seems that many of the psychological traumas that veterans are experiencing during the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are caused by cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is caused by one’s behavior conflicting with one’s internal beliefs. An example of this is Garret Peppenhagen, a returning veteran. He expected to go to war and feel as though he was being heroic. Instead, he felt like “an asshole”, and claimed as though his service in Iraq had caused him to “[act] like a Nazi” (Gutmann and Lutz 16). He was unable to communicate with many of the civilians, and had to resort to violent and aggressive measures to ensure his own safety. He began to wonder what good he was doing during his time in Iraq, and has been psychologically damaged by his actions. Another famous veteran that opposed the war on his return home was Ricky Clousing. He saw many war crimes being committed during his tour in Iraq, and civilians being killed and harassed (Gutmann and Lutz 17). Ricky turned himself in for war crimes, and served a three month sentence in a North Carolina Brig. Both he and Garret are among a new trend of soldiers that are opposing the psychological damage that they have felt as a result of the war being classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They instead insist that this is a natural human reaction to both the atrocities that they have witnessed during the war, and the guilt that they feel as a result of being a victimizer. Clousing claims that they are actually tapped into their human, spiritual and emotional side enough to feel the war’s effects on them (Gutmann and Lutz 18). They attribute their trauma to the dehumanizing orders that they must follow, and the unjust nature of these two wars. In this way, they are part of a growing number of veterans that place the blame on the government for allowing them to go to war in the first place, and on the military and its alleged corruption. Though this war has been protested by a significant number of veterans, the government has attempted to help psychologically damaged veterans, and increase the amount of coverage that veterans receive under the G.I. Bill.

One way that the government is attempting to help veterans returning with psychological issues is that the Department of Defense (DOD) has instituted a universal screening program to monitor the health, including the mental health, of troops returning from combat. The screening is a questionnaire given to soldiers that are returning home from their deployment. The problem with this is that it has been shown to be relatively ineffective. Some reasons are that there is still a stigma against admitting to mental health problems, the soldiers do not take them seriously because they want to return home sooner, and that their symptoms have not started showing because they have not been back long enough to notice them. Another measure that the federal government has taken in an effort to assist retuning veterans is to increase the amount of veterans that are covered by the G. I. Bill. A veteran is now more than likely eligible if they have “at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001, and are still on active duty, or if you are an honorably discharged Veteran or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days” ( This new amendment to the bill was passed under Barack Obama’s administration in 2008, as a way to reward the brave men and women who served their country after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The new bill includes a greater amount of both educational coverage for returning veterans, and the ability to transfer unused benefits to dependents (i.e. spouses and children). This is extremely important because it gives an even greater incentive to join the military. It allows a soldier not only an income to support their family, but the ability to use their educational benefits or weekly allowance on their children. Even though there has been debate about whether the federal government was justified in entering into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are attempting to do a better job of taking care of their returning veterans, and provide their families with better coverage.

When the United States first committed to going to war in Iraq, there was a lot of support from home due to the attacks of September 11, 2001. As time went on, however, the public seemed to have lost, and continued living their daily lives relatively unaffected. In fact, the people that seem to protest the wars the most were the returning veterans. The examples of Thomas Young, Garret Peppenhagen, and Ricky Clouse demonstrate the negative effects that the war has on returning veterans, physically, mentally, and even legally. They also help to illuminate that the problems do not simply end when a soldier returns from combat. A wounded veteran, psychologically or physically, must deal with the ramifications of their injuries for years to come. Even though the government has attempted to help these wounded warriors by implementing increased benefits from the G.I. Bill, and preliminary screening when soldiers return home, it is still a struggle for many to assimilate into society. It is impossible for a soldier to be completely unaffected by war, and with the lack of public awareness about Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems to make it more difficult for returning veterans to return to their ordinary lives.

Greg Miller. Widening the Attack on Combat-Related Mental Health Problems. Science, New Series, Vol. 313, No. 5789 (Aug. 18, 2006), pp. 908-909.

Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz. Becoming Monsters in Iraq. Anthropology Now, Vol. 1, No. 1 (April 2009), pp. 12-20.



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