By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
“I don’t think it is a stretch to say many veterans feel as though the vast majority of Americans neither understand nor care to understand their experience,” David Kieran said when he sat down to talk to the Pittsburgh Current recently.
A North Side resident, Kieran teaches history at Washington & Jefferson College. He is a military historian not much interested in battle plans or which platoon went where. He’s more interested in understanding the military as a social institution, how we understand the military as an organization within American culture, and how the military understands itself as an organization within American culture.
His new book, Signature Wounds: The Untold Story of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis, (New York University Press, 2019) deals with the military’s efforts to confront post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and develop treatment protocols for active-duty soldiers, in real time with soldiers in the field and while facing acute political pressure and public scrutiny as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were dragging on, year after year after year.
“It is the story of how the advancement of medical knowledge moves at a different pace than the needs of an army at war and of how medical conditions and medical knowledge intersect with larger political questions about militarism and foreign policy,” he writes.
“I got to sit in while they (the Army) trained people on suicide prevention. And I realized, they’re working really hard on this. They operated under incredible pressure and incredible stress with limited resources and trying to figure all that out. And it was … like changing the tires on a bus going 60 miles down the highway,” Kieran said.
Through exhaustive research that started in 2013, he conducted interviews with Army staff, veterans and military families, culled through thousands and thousands of pages of documents, memos, powerpoints, handbooks from the Army and the VA, read and watched reams of media coverage, and spent time with the above Suicide Prevention Task Force at the Pentagon.
Some of Kieran’s findings surprised him. He found that active duty soldiers felt incredible anxiety around very commonplace things like a lack of privacy, being able to call home, access to mail, concern for their spouses and children and parents who were coping with life on their own. Less of a concern seems to be the incredibly dangerous conditions they are dealing with in combat.
We tend to think of the experience of the soldier, as a singular thing, disconnected from civilian life, but what Kieran explores is actually about how those soldiers and those veterans are part of a larger network of people who care about them.
Kieran devotes a lot of room in his book for military families to describe and illuminate the various stressors on families on the homefront and how that can feed into the stress for the deployed soldier; the difficulties and worries on both sides compound one another. It feels like a long-overdue discussion of the sacrifices of military families.
“American culture in general is pretty acquiescent to the idea that we should use military force to solve foreign policy problems,” Kieran said. “Because you have half of a percent of them serving in the military — it’s a small number.”
He also devotes two chapters to suicide, one to active duty and one to veteran suicide. These are some of the strongest chapters in the book and these were the starting point for him. And, of course, he investigates in depth the Army’s efforts to address the mental health issues soldiers face (the titular “signature wounds”), and that the military was totally unprepared for long drawn-out wars and the toll that would take on combat soldiers.
Burned by Vietnam, the powers that be never wanted to be stuck in that type of counter-insurgent quagmire again and were instead planning for a cold war cataclysm in Europe. “There’s never this assumption that we’ll be at war for 15 years. We’ll be at war with an all-volunteer force that’s going to need to be deployed over and over and over again. That was not on the radar,” Kieran said.
After all, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in 2002, “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that. It won’t be a World War III.” Americans were expecting Desert Storm 2.0, Bigger, Badder, Faster.
“The key issue,” Kieran said, “is that the military tries really hard in this, but you cannot do enough to mitigate the wars. You can’t solve the problem of a 15-year-long war.”