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Soldiers pay the highest price of war

Fort Campbell, KY.  The Home of the Screaming EaglesAnger. Feelings of rage. Unable to turn down the hyper-vigilance necessary overseas but not here. Soldiers coming back from their first tours in Iraq felt some of these things, but it wasn’t until many returned from a second, often overextended, deployment that such feelings exploded in extremely high numbers.

“I don’t even want to know what they will be like after a third tour,” Coe said, estimating that as many as 40% of returning troops face mental health issues relating to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clarksville therapist Mary Coe, AVP, is one of many private practitioners across the country who are working to manage the “extremely high numbers” of soldiers coming home with serious mental health issues. Coe was recently interviewed by the New York Times, where she also spoke out about the high mental cost of war on troops and their families and communities.

“Their anger really exploded after the second deployment,” Coe said. “I can only imagine what it will be after the third one. Many of the troops are having their tours extended, and their time home curtailed.” She says it is a recipe for disaster for military families.

Coe, a member of the FreeThinkers for Peace and Civil Liberties, will join a number of other speakers and is expected to address this and other war-related issues Saturday, March 17, at 2 p.m. in Nashville at the Walk In Their Shoes rally, at Owen Bradley Park next to Music Row, Division and 16th Streets, followed by a march to the Federal Building at 9th and Broadway at 3:30 p.m. March 19 is the fourth anniversary of the Iraq Invasion.

In a recent interview, Coe said that many soldiers are hyped up for a dangerous mission in Iraq, and are frustrated by the reality that they “are not winning this war. That the war is unwinnable.” They come home, but they can’t turn off their feelings, they can’t turn off what they’ve seen, and are troubled by many of the things they had to do over there. They turn that anger on their families, their wives and their children when they come home. Arguing. Blow-ups. Snapping at loved ones. They can’t turn off their anger.”

One client compared her husband to a porcupine with bristling quills. “It’s hard to love a porcupine,” she said.

Coe said many soldiers don’t want to talk about what happens [in Iraq], but others do. They talk about killing women and children, civilians caught in the crossfire or not, and they are experiencing what Coe defines as “perpetrator-induced traumatic stress.” They are doing things that violate their belief systems, their moral codes of conduct, and they can’t live with that when they return stateside. An indicator of the severity of the problem emerges when some soldiers say they want to go back “to die.”

Coe noted that in World War II, they were many instances of soldiers who never fired a shot because they were not taught to kill. Today’s soldiers are highly trained to do just that. Kill. The military powers that be made sure their soldiers could and would kill.

Another serious issue among military families affected by these deployments is sex addiction. They are away from families, with access to internet sites and even female soldiers, for long periods of time. Many of the female troops report feeling uncomfortable with how their male counterparts sometimes look at them or treat them. Wives report a distance in affection, a lack of closeness with returning spouses, of being treated more like prostitutes than wives. Rape within marriage is not uncommon in these situations. With internet access, and sometimes with the proximity of female soldiers, sex happens to an extreme degree — internet pornography is addictive, and also has the effect of desensitizing one to normal relationships.

“The sex-addicted brain is like the cocaine-addicted brain: the only cure for sex addiction is abstinence.” For spouses who have been so long apart with multiple deployments, that is also another hardship. Coe reports an increasing number of divorces and family breaks in the wake of long and repeated deployments. Wives “hate to be treated as sex objects,” but Coe says that is exactly what many wives report.

It’s not just a man’s world, Coe says. Women deployed overseas often feel targeted by a culture that does not honor its women. “There are countries that treat their horses better than their women,” she said. “I can’t imagine a country where women are vassals. Where soldiers are dragged in the street and where some of our men do them what they(insurgents) are doing to us. The Army has given them the okay to kill.”

Coe noted that there are approximately 150,000 soldiers in Iraq. There are 180,000 private contractors there who, while being well paid, do not have the mental health benefits that soldiers do. Nor do many of the reservists called to duty in Iraq have adequate and timely benefits. She also noted that many soldiers accessing care outside the military through private providers like her are only allotted six visits for mental health care. “It’s nowhere near enough,” she said. “Not with these problems.”

The current crisis at Walter Reed medical center and within the hierarchy of military commands is focused in great part on the escalating critical needs of those returning with both physical and mental issues that are nothing short of critical.

“These are incredible problems, crisis, for families, who are now dealing with “anticipatory anxiety” over a third, fourth or fifth deployment, in the case of some special forces. Wives have started support groups, and that helps some of them, but it’s not enough.” Coe said.

Children of soldiers returning from Iraq are “confused, upset” and often say their dads or moms “are mean and grouchy.” Tempers flare without rhyme or reason, and children don’t understand why. “Children are “pissed” at their moms and dads for being away, and for coming back mad. And in some cases, children who are very young don’t even know the angry, screaming, moody parent who has just come home,” Coe said. “It terrifies them and in many cases makes the children act out.” It’s a problem for the entire family.

The Army’s priority is its mission, and they made false or ill-thought out promises to take care of their employees – our soldiers. With no exit strategy in sight, and increased deployments looming with the squiggle of a presidential pen, there is also no end in sight to the emotional trauma our soldiers must live with for years to come.

Coe and therapists like her across the country are doing their best to pick up the slack and fill the gaping holes created by a lack of realistic planning by DOD administrators and the President himself for the aftermath of war and prolonged deployments. Ordinary military soldiers and their families are paying the highest price for war.



  1. It doesn’t surprise me that an anti-war activist would have such opinions.

    Personally, I have many friends who served in Iraq. Several of them have served second, even third, tours – voluntarily.

    I can’t imagine dealing with war is easy, and some people likely do have mental health issues.

    But, going to war is a possibility for anyone who decides to join the military. You can’t have all of the benefits without potentially dealing with some of the risks.

    I am proud of all of the American men and women who have risked their lives for all of us in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. I pray for the families of the brave men and women who have lost their lives serving their country.

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