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Taken for Granted
Soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan may not experience the hostility from society upon their return to the U.S. that Vietnam vets did. But they encounter something that psychologists say is nearly as disorienting: America has found ways to distract itself from the fact that it has dispatched 1.6 million service members to two wars and kept them fighting for far longer than the duration of World War II. This struck Waddell while he was at a mall, when a shopper asked him how he broke his leg. "Iraq," Waddell answered. The reply: "Was it a car wreck or a cycle wreck?" Colorado Springs psychologist Kelly Orr, who is treating the exNavy SEAL, says, "We get all excited when Johnny goes marching off to war, and then we forget about him a few days later when our favorite football team loses a game." This, says Orr, adds to a returnee's well of anger and loneliness.
Waddell became an expert at hiding his PTSD symptoms from his fellow SEALs. Despite his wife's constant pleas for him to seek help, Waddell's standard reply was, "I don't have a problem. You do." It took a full six months after the SEALs' disaster in Afghanistan before Waddell admitted to Marshéle that he was hurting. "Training inoculates you against trauma. The first time you see someone dead, it's a shock. By the 10th time, you're walking over dead bodies and making sick jokes about what they had for breakfast. But all that stress accumulates." Says Marshéle: "Mark was like the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. He had compartmentalized everything beautifully, but all these compartments were filling up with water. The ship was sinking, and he was the last to know."
When Waddell finally sought treatment, he was ordered to report to a Norfolk, Va., mental-health facility at 5 a.m., wearing his civvies as though, he mused, it was taboo for anyone in uniform to admit they might be cracking up. As in other areas, the military is undermanned when it comes to mental-health experts. The Army reckons it has only about 400 psychiatrists handling more than half a million troops. That may have been one reason the Army was reluctant to nudge a strangely performing Hasan, who had trained as a shrink, out of the service: it needed him. Faced with a wave of service members coming back from combat in anguish, the Pentagon has made the diagnosis and treatment of posttraumatic disorders a top priority. Every battalion, especially in combat zones, is now supposed to have a mental-health specialist.
Care varies from base to base. The previous commander at Fort Carson, Major General Mark Graham, became an advocate for improved mental-health care for soldiers after he lost two sons in military service one in Iraq and the other to suicide. At Fort Carson, the base hospital is expanding its facilities for mental-health and family therapy, with regular counseling sessions for soldiers and their spouses. But it takes a while for a general's orders to trickle down to the ranks, where platoon leaders are supposed to steel their troops, physically and mentally, against the enemy. Says Colonel Jimmie Keenan, commander of Fort Carson's hospital: "I'd be a fool to say that all the stigma is gone. The marked difference is what's being put in place to deal with this. A soldier has to be able to come forward."