Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
According to a recent survey by The Washington Post, more than half the of the 2.6 million veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are now struggling with issues related to their physical and mental health. The gunman who opened fire at a military base in Texas last week was among those veterans of the Iraq war who later dealt with behavioral and mental health issues. Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran joins Kojo to explore the marks these wars have left on the generation of veterans who fought them.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why USAID officials in the United States are under fire for a scheme to create unrest in Cuba with a fake social media network. But first, America' newest veterans and the toll of the wars they fought. According to a recent survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of the 2.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with physical or mental health issues, traceable back to the time they served.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd feel disconnected from both civilian life and from a government that made promises to take care of them. Many of these issues were thrown back into the spotlight last week when an Iraq War veteran opened fire on a military base in Texas, a burst of violence that left four people dead and more than a dozen wounded. Joining us to explore what we are learning about the physical and the mental toll America's recent wars have taken on its new veterans is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a Senior Correspondent and Associate Editor of The Washington Post. He joins us from studios at The Post. Rajiv, thank you for joining us.
MR. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARANGood afternoon, Kojo. Good to be on with you, and thanks for devoting time to this issue.
NNAMDIThank you very much for participating with us. And if you'd like to participate in the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you or any close to you served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? How would you describe the toll that service has taken on those who are deployed? 800-433-8850. Rajiv, the shooting at Fort Hood last week served as a reminder to many people of the scars that America's newest veterans bear, even if the narrative isn't as clean or as simple as some would have made it out to be.
NNAMDIBefore we talk about this shooting though, a week ago, the Post published the results of an expansive survey of more than two million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. What portrait, if you will, did this survey paint, for you, about the legacy these conflicts have on those who served in them?
CHANDRASEKARANKojo, the poll, the survey of hundreds of the 2.6 million members of our military who have served in these two wars, over the past 12 years, really, you know, opens a very revealing window into their lives, their sense of service, the consequences of these wars and how they look back on them. This is a group of Americans, Kojo, who have been pretty badly battered by their service. 43 percent say they're health is worse today, their physical health is worse today than before they deployed. Almost a third say their mental or emotional health is worse.
CHANDRASEKARANFour in 10 experience regular outbursts of anger, and about the same percentage have relationship problems they report. 55 percent of them say they feel disconnected from civilian life in America. And there's also some pretty deep seated frustrations with the quality and level of services provided by the government. Almost 60 percent say the Veterans Administration is doing a only fair or poor job of taking care of this generation of veterans. They give about the same marks to the Pentagon, in terms of the services provided for the transition for members of the military from a uniformed service into civilian life.
CHANDRASEKARANBut all that said, Kojo, when we asked them, given everything you know, given what you know about the risks, given the separation from family, given all those other issues, would you, in hindsight, have chosen to do it all over again? And you know what we heard? 89 percent of them said they'd do it all over again. So, this is not an angry, embittered group of Americans, by any stretch of the imagination. They've got issues. They're working through them. But, and many of them, I should note, the majority of them, are doing just fine.
CHANDRASEKARANThey don't have mental health issues. They are moving into the civilian job market, transitioning to civilian life with no issues. And that's -- we'll talk about this, I'm sure, over the next several minutes, but one of the dangers, in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, where people start to view this entire group of Americans as dangerous or broken or ready to snap. And what we found was far from that. We did find issues, but we also found a deep sense of pride and a willingness to sort of move forward with their lives.
NNAMDILet's talk about the issues for a second, because in your piece, you note that this particular generation of veterans seems to be struggling with a unique set of challenges. You asked General Eric Shinseki, the head of the Veterans Affairs Department about this. What did he say?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, he acknowledged that there are real challenges that they are facing, in terms of a delivery of services and pledge to eliminate the back log of claims for Veterans Affairs benefits by the end of next year. But, you know, also noted the very unique sacrifice that this generation has made. You know, many of those who have served in these wars have served multiple deployments. They've gone out for a year, come back, and then gone back out again. In some cases, more than twice.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd, you know, that repeated -- those repeated deployments, coupled with very intensive training back home, coupled with the very unique natures of these modern wars, where there's no front line, where every day was a stressful environment, really has created some enormous challenges. But it speaks to how this generation is really -- has borne a very, very heavy burden. And though it's 2.6 million Americans, it sounds like a lot of people, it's still less than one percent of our population. We've left -- we put the burden of service on a very, very small group of Americans.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's the voice of Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a Senior Correspondent and Associate Editor of The Washington Post. Joining us to talk about the issues that veterans face these days, and we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever tried to seek mental health treatment through the military? What do you think could be done better to make sure that veterans have access to care for their mental health needs? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIRajiv, I'd like to get back to the point you made earlier that despite all of the problems that these veterans are encountering, that 89 percent of them said they would absolutely do it all over again. What do you think is the source of that kind of, if you will, optimism?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think, to some degree, these individuals see their work as a noble calling. They stepped up, despite all of the dangers, all of the privations, the separation from family for, in some cases, many years. They said, hey look, this is what I signed up to do, and I'm gonna do it well. And they've been able to divorce their views of the worthiness of the wars from the work that they themselves did out in the field. And we are dealing with a professional military here.
CHANDRASEKARANThese are all, almost all of them, are individuals who knew when they were signing up, that there was a very high likelihood they would be sent out to Iraq or Afghanistan. And so they did it knowingly. They did it willingly. This wasn't a draft army. And so, it wasn't people who were being sort of sent, if not against their will, being sent who wouldn't otherwise have wanted to go. So, you automatically sort of self select into a group of people who believe in service, who believe in what the military can do. And even if they weren't, for instance, great fans of the Iraq War, they looked and said, look, I'm going out there.
CHANDRASEKARANI'm gonna make a difference in my own respective area. And, for many of them, they were fighting not for broader national policy objectives. They were fighting for the man and woman to their left and right of them.
NNAMDIAbout a third of the respondents told you they think about their deployments on a daily basis. One 32-year-old veteran named Nicholas Johnson, who served in Iraq, told you it feels, I'm quoting here, like I left the war zone, but the war zone never left me. What is it about his story that you found so illuminating?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, he's one of the many veterans who's facing a real tough go of it. He's wrestling with some pretty significant post traumatic stress demons. The work he had to do out there -- he only had one tour, as a member of the Arkansas National Guard. But he was asked to do some pretty arduous work, pretty inglorious work, too. You know, when roadside bombs go off, they leave big craters in the ground. And if you don't fill up those craters, the insurgents can put new bombs in them.
CHANDRASEKARANSo, he was asked to jackhammer around those craters so they could then fill them with concrete. But he had to jackhammer wearing heavy body armor and a helmet. Well, the force of the jack hammering, with the body armor and all that, has really messed up his back. I think he has to walk with a cane today. He's very restricted in the work he can do. He wants to get a job. He lives in Topeka, Kansas. He'd love to get a job at the Goodyear factory there, but he can't apply for it, because his back is too damaged.
CHANDRASEKARANSo, he does some retail work at a Lowe's in the city.
NNAMDIIf you don't mind my interrupting, let's take a listen to a little bit of what Nicholas Johnson actually told The Washington Post.
MR. NICHOLAS JOHNSONBetween the pain from the injury and the back, and God knows the torment from PTSD, you don't necessarily look the part. But you still suffer and your life is changed. I was proud of what I did. I knew that people at home looked up to me and respected me, and said, you know, he's a soldier. He's fighting for your freedom. I had a class of kids and they sent me a packet full of letters and pictures that they drew. You know? And, of course, they were young, and the funniest one was, this kid said, watch out for lightning while you're over there.
MR. NICHOLAS JOHNSONI was proud of what I did. And I come home and I can't even get a decent job. I make barely over minimum wage. And I can't give my kid the life he deserves.
NNAMDIJohnson mentioning how his physical injuries are making it extremely difficult for him to support his family. Rajiv, what did you find out about how veterans across the board feel about whether they're prepared to be competitive in today's civilian job market?
CHANDRASEKARANKojo, before I answer that question, I should note, I love radio. It's a great medium, but what your listeners couldn't get there was that as he was finishing up that sentence, you know, this is a big strapping, tough dude. A tear was rolling down his cheek. I mean, this is a tough, tough readjustment for him and for many, many others. You know, what we found with regard to, kind of, entry into the civilian job market was a very mixed picture.
CHANDRASEKARANFor officers, for those who have college degrees, who have real clear leadership skills that they gained in their time in the military, they're having a pretty good time -- I shouldn't say good, but it's not as hard for them. They're able to translate those skills. They're able to get professional jobs without too much trouble. The real issue is for the enlisted folks. The guys who do not have college degrees, those who did things that, perhaps, are much tougher to translate into the civilian world. If you were simply an infantryman, yes, there may be a path into law enforcement, but beyond that, it's hard to show to employers, hey look, I picked up these skills.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd I can transfer them into the civilian workplace. And so, we found much higher levels of some frustration and some anxiety in that very large group of veterans, just in terms of them kind of coming into an economy that's already struggling. And particularly with fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs, it's not the same economy that absorbed that World War 2 generation in the late 40s and in the 50s. And so, they're having a much tougher time finding their footing.
NNAMDIBut Nicholas Johnson, at least, knows that his back is the problem. A lot of the veterans who now struggle with disabilities don't exactly have scars to show for them. What kind of window did this survey give you into the emotional toll of these wars?
CHANDRASEKARANIt's an enormous emotional toll. I mean, we found that one third or a little under one third -- three in 10 of these veterans are wrestling with some emotional or mental issues. You know, a half of them, Kojo, personally know a fellow service member who's tried to or has succeeded in killing themselves. I mean, that is just a staggering toll. Not just the toll of suicides but the toll that places across the veteran population as they come to understand that some of their buddies are in such dire conditions.
CHANDRASEKARANYou know, a fifth of them know a fellow veteran who's become homeless. It speaks to the real challenge. Now many of them are getting treatment, they are getting better. But this is just an enormous cost and an almost burden of these wars.
CHANDRASEKARANYou know, about 37 percent of the entire 2.6 million who served out there, 37 percent of them have been rated by the Pentagon or by the VA as service-connected disabled. That means they're going to be getting some payment every month for the rest of their lives. In many cases it's not a huge payment but that's a huge percentage of the force, a huge number of Americans that are for the rest of their lives going to be having to deal with some degree of mental and physical consequence of their service.
NNAMDIHere's what Sarai in Baltimore, Md. has to say about that. Sarai, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAIHi. Thank you for taking my call. My husband was wounded in 2003 in Iraq and lost the lower half of his right leg. When he came home it was really, really hard to deal with. And at first he wouldn't acknowledge that he had PTSD. The people that were hurt harder than me, people hurt more severely than me I can handle that. We've been married 11 years and it's still affecting our relationship, our marriage our kids.
SARAIWe've gotten through it but the most frustrating thing to us has been that he got a job at the mint. And even though he passed at the top 1 percent of his class, all of his training to become a police officer and an agent, the mint refuses to give him a gun, a badge or promotion any higher because they believe he is not mentally or physically capable. And even though we've had a lawsuit against that, a disabled complaint, they still don't side with us. And we have documentation showing that.
SARAISo as a result he's trying to leave the mint and go into comedy full time to Comedy Warriors. In fact, he had a movie on Showtime to help deal with the PTSD, how comedy can help get him over it. So he's leaving federal service because he can't go any higher.
NNAMDIGlad you could share that with us, Sarai because Rajiv, it does raise the question about the kinds of experiences veterans are having as they try to seek treatment or care for the emotional or mental health needs that they now have as a result of their services.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd this is a problem that has multiple levels, Kojo. You know, at one level, as the caller was saying, there is this sense of stoicism among members of the military and a still significant stigma about seeking mental health treatment.
CHANDRASEKARANSo you have individuals who may well be in need who either don't want to put their hand up and say I need help, or their superiors at times may belittle them, may think that they're just trying to find an excuse not to show up at work. And then you have a military medical health system that is bursting at the seams with so many individuals who are needing services, it's really, really taxed.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd I had a conversation with General Peter Chiarelli last week in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings. He's the former vice chief of staff of the army and really a leading advocate for better military mental health treatment. And he was saying, look you know, the most promising treatment for post traumatic stress can be time consuming and laborious. They can involve multiple sessions where individuals are working with a therapist to work through their issues to go back and relive some of those terrible moments.
CHANDRASEKARANWell, that takes a lot of time and in many cases the military just doesn't have enough people to do that so they write prescriptions for medication. And people get overly medicated. And so these are real issues that the Pentagon, the VA is going to have to deal with moving on. And then there's the whole question of how does the civilian world, how do employers really come to understand this? And do they see these individuals as potential risks, as people who are going to snap one day?
CHANDRASEKARANAnd I think the record shows up until now when you -- yes, things like this Fort Hood shooting -- and I should note that, you know, everything we're learning is not that his combat service led to the shooting but perhaps it was something else. But, you know, what we know from individuals who have gotten violent because of post traumatic stress, it's almost always violence directed at themselves. They're not out there committing mass murders. And there have been far more mass shootings in this country over the last couple of years committed by people who have no connection to the military who weren't veterans.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd so there is this, you know, unfair stigma that gets attached to them. And so you have employers -- in part it also speaks, Kojo, to the separation between the military and the society. With such a small percentage of our countrymen serving or have served, what it means is that in many workplaces those doing the hiring have no connection to the military. They don't understand what these folks went through. And they sort of assume the worst.
NNAMDIFinally Rajiv, the shootings at Fort Hood took place just a few days after the Post published the first story about this survey. It's now my understanding that the Army has already launched a study of mental health risk and resilience among military personnel. What have they found so far?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, it's early days. There's a lot more that the military and the VA have to do in terms of research on this subject, both in terms of post traumatic stress, in terms of the longer term consequences of traumatic brain injury, the concussions that troops suffer when things go boom near them, even if they're in big hulking trucks. And so the signs here are still very sketchy.
CHANDRASEKARANI just go back, in closing, Kojo, to what General Chiarelli was telling me last week. You know, he said, when you come in to a clinic, a military clinic or a VA clinic with post traumatic stress symptoms, they literally go through a 20-question checklist. There is no, you know, diagnostic tools that involve, you know, analyzing with MRIs or using, you know, blood chemistry markers. He said it's sort of like going in to see a doctor with a broken leg and the doctor just asks you a bunch of questions and doesn't x-ray you.
CHANDRASEKARANHe said, you know, we're sort of like still -- we made all these great strides in other aspects of warfare and other aspects of battlefield medicine. But when it comes to treating post traumatic stress it's like we're still back in the 1940s.
NNAMDIRajiv Chandrasekaran, he is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post. Rajiv, thank you so much for joining us.
CHANDRASEKARANA real pleasure to talk to you, Kojo. Thanks for taking the time to talk about this.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, why USAID officials in the United States are under fire for a scheme to create unrest in Cuba with a fake social media network. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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