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Hidden wounds of the war

By Tom Davis

When Christian Lopez began his second tour of duty in Iraq, he was "psyched."

Then came the dreams. In them, the Marine watched friends die. He dreamed that an IED (improvised explosive device) blew off his leg. Eventually, he became too scared to sleep.

Lopez sought help but was rebuffed. When he protested, he was arrested, he said. He spent nearly two months in a military detention facility at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The 23-year-old North Bergen native and Spotswood High School graduate was eventually discharged honorably. But he doesn't know why his military career had to end this way.

Lopez considers himself "patriotic." He supported the war. He always wanted to be in the military. When he came home, TV stations and newspapers recognized his achievements.

What happened?

"I was just in various bad situations," said Lopez, who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

His case exemplifies how the American soldier-- even those hailed as heroes -- are vulnerable to the effects of combat.

"The horrors he saw but could not prevent, as well as some he may have directly participated in -- it can create tremendous psychological pressures that can manifest," said Maurice Elias, a Rutgers University psychology professor.

The Pentagon says it has greatly expanded its mental health services since the Vietnam War. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no longer treated as a weakness.

When soldiers come home, they're often referred to Veterans Administration facilities that provide psychiatrists and psychologists. Or, they have access to support networks set up by military facilities.

Resources for soldiers currently serving, however, fall short, mental health professionals say. Some argue that the Pentagon hasn't come to grips with illnesses that leave no physical wounds.

They point to Army surveys that show the suicide rate among soldiers jumped sharply in 2003, just after the war began. The numbers have since dropped, but psychologists fear for soldiers fighting a war that has no end in sight.

About 17 percent of all soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a March 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. That compares with about 15 percent of those who fought in the Vietnam War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Iraq war has no clear front line, psychologists say. Like the Vietnam War, soldiers have to live in constant fear that a bomb could blow up at their feet.

Elias noted the military uses techniques on the battlefield that are designed to stabilize and get soldiers "back in the game as quickly as possible."

"This seems to help in the short term and even, for some, in the long term. But for others, it may not give them a full chance to process what has happened," he said. "There is no one-size-fits-all effective treatment."

Initially, Lopez didn't have fears about war.

In 2003, Lopez celebrated his return from a five-month tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait. Spotswood High School honored the 2001 graduate with a plaque on its "Wall of Honor."

Last year, however, he noticed a change in himself while serving aboard the U.S.S. Ashland.

He felt stress over the war. His grandmother and best friend died. The year prior, his dad lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident.

"The father's injury, in this case, can be connected to guilt at having been away," Elias said. "He was not there for his father."

Lopez started to have feelings he never had before. He knew they couldn't be ignored.

"I tried talking to several people on ship -- I kept letting them know I have problems sleeping. I was having flashbacks to the war," Lopez said.

Lopez said he pushed to seek help from people aboard the ship. The Marines, in fact, seemed to think he was pushing too hard.

Though Camp Lejeune declined to provide specifics, Lopez said the Marines later accused him of sexually harassing a female lieutenant while serving aboard the Ashland. Lopez said the charge isn't true.

The Marines say Lopez initially required "medical restraints," and some of his clothes were removed while he was detained at Camp Lejeune because he wanted to hurt himself.

Lopez said he didn't want to hurt himself, either. He just wanted help.

"They made it worse," Lopez said. "They didn't destroy me, but they destroyed my career."

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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