by Matt Gallagher
In light of President Obama's recent drawdown announcement, the trajectory of the Afghanistan War isn't quite so hazy anymore. "The beginning of the end," wrote one Afghanistan vet on Facebook. With Osama bin Laden dead and this plan in place, the natural inclination for American society will be to move on and narrow our concern to domestic issues, which historically tends to occur in postwar periods. That can't happen, as Dr. Ronald Glasser makes clear in his book, Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds. Glasser, the author of the acclaimed Vietnam account 365 Days and a former Army surgeon, explores the evolution of battlefield injuries and treatment from that war to now, and puts into perspective the hidden costs of lifetime care our nation will be paying for decades to come. With a new surge of veterans due to return from combat, it's all too evident that the war on the homefront is just beginning.
If one were just to glance at the death totals, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars wouldn't seem like a big deal, at least when compared to the great force-on-force battles of the 20th century. But, Glasser argues, "We have been lulled by our own successes in simply keeping our troops alive -- as if death is the only measure of risks on the battlefield -- into a strange kind of reverie." Over 11,000 American service members have been wounded in the decade-long war in Afghanistan, with well over 32,000 wounded in Iraq. Due to incredible medical advances made in recent years, men and women are surviving who wouldn't have only a few years ago, though full recoveries remain rare and usually unlikely. This fact, combined with the guerilla nature of these wars, has led to an influx of multiple amputees, severe burn survivors, and, most abundantly, brain injuries that are largely invisible but forever life-altering.
The literary muscle Glasser flexed in 365 Days isn't as prevalent in the more didactic Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds, but it still does emerge in the text, particularly in wounded soldiers' and Marines' anecdotes of their time on the frontlines. A young Marine named Jake "heard an officer comment one evening that this fight was not about the Taliban, nationalism, or terrorism, but what he called 'valleyism.' " And later: "He sent home a package of pictures that had been taken during his promotion [at Camp Leatherneck] ... When his mother opened the envelope, the gritty dirt and dust of Afghanistan fell through her fingers onto the kitchen table. She stared at the small mound of grayish sand and started to cry."
Yet it's more the doctor in Glasser, and less the writer, that howls with frustration at "a military, rather than a country, at war." From analyzing the staggering rate of Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) incurred in the Global War Terror (approximately 300,000), to expounding on the delayed effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it is with a surgeon's precision that Glasser thoroughly and efficiently dissects the ramifications of these brushfire wars. Further, when attempting to wrestle with the suicide epidemic currently plaguing the military community -- some estimates suggest that more active-duty personnel and veterans have committed suicide post-deployment than those actually killed in combat -- he cites an overwhelmed Veterans Health Administration light on medical personnel but heavy on prescription drugs, and an unprecedented sense of isolation for this generation of returning vets. An unintended byproduct of a warrior caste separate and distinct from greater society, the all-volunteer force may have yielded a more professional military, but it has had a far more harmful impact on the individual veteran. Serving as part of the "one percent of war fighters" may be attractive during a recruiter's pitch, but after the fact seems to be a different story.
As gloomy a forecast as Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds predicts, it's also something of a harbinger. The American military always downsizes after wars. Accordingly, the care for current Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is nothing more than the figurative tip of the iceberg; multiple-deployment personnel have simply been too busy up until now to seek out physical and mental health treatment. That will change in the near future. These vets will be returning home to a country tired of the wars but generally limited in its understanding of them. Glasser's nuanced comprehension of wartime and post-wartime medical care gives this book true immediacy. His chilling words of wisdom demand to be read by anyone who believes a nation's true worth is measured by how it cares for its combat veterans.
Matt Gallagher is the senior writing manager of the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and spent 15 months in Iraq with the U.S. Army as an armored cavalry officer. He is the author of the war memoir Kaboom.