Friday, August 31, 2012

Dead or Alive: W.D. Ehrhart on War and Peace

We are the ones you sent to fight a war
You didn’t know a thing about.
Those of us who lived
Have tried to tell you what went wrong…
(from “A Relative Thing”)

The expanding bookshelf of works by W.D. Ehrhart—20 books, at last count—started with a ticked off Marine who barely survived a rocket blast in the Battle of Hue in 1968. 

“I began to write about the war. I didn’t know it then, but the writing was a way to get at what had happened to me and why and how I felt about it,” he noted in “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?,” an essay published in Studies in Education in 1994 and reprinted in one of Ehrhart’s periodic collections of essays. “My writing has been for me a continuing education, as I hope it is for those who read it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that I have been an educator all my adult life.”

But here’s a very unusual educator—one who hurls poems and essays, books and more books, like thunderbolts.

“As a poet, that’s what I want a poem to do. Shake things up. Get under people’s skin. Get into their heads and stay there,” he wrote in “Batter My Heart with the Liquor Store: or, Teaching Poetry to Teenagers,” a speech he gave at a teachers’ conference, reprinted in Dead on a High Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2012. “I want to make my readers laugh and cry and ache and gasp and see the world in ways they never thought of made suddenly familiar by my words. And when they put down a poem of mine, I want them to say to themselves, ‘Wow.’”

Ehrhart’s interweaving of “wow”-level poetry, provocative essays and challenging classroom teaching is astounding. Consider this address he gave to seniors at The Haverford School, a private school near Philadelphia, PA, where for the past decade he’s created a crucible of life lessons by way of teaching American and British literature and history:

“Are you going to continue to make the same mistakes humanity has been making since time out of mind? Are you going to continue to think in terms of me and mine, us and them, my good fortune and your tough luck, my country versus your country, my way or no way, this is mine and I deserve it? Are you going to continue to live as the generations before you have lived, as if the future will always be there?

“Or are you going to do what has never been done before: learn to think truly and genuinely creatively, imaginatively, globally, selflessly, beyond borders and boundaries and horizons, beyond old fears and comfortable truisms that are leading us inevitably toward irreversible disaster?”  

Ehrhart’s teachable moments don’t just occur in his presence. I was recently at a Warrior Writers workshop for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that was held in New York City. As a writing prompt for the younger veterans looking to learn how to write about haunting experiences, workshop director Lovella Calica handed out copies of an Ehrhart essay titled “If This Be War.” The provocative point of this opinion piece is that if Americans truly support the war on terrorism we should stop amusing ourselves with sports events until the war is over.

Ehrhart is even harder on fellow history teachers. “If you are unwilling to believe that your government will lie to you, if you are unwilling to believe that your government considers its less influential citizens expendable, if you are unwilling to believe that your leaders make decisions based not on rational logic and available information but on irrational wishes and insupportable beliefs, then you will never understand the disaster of the Vietnam War and should not be teaching it,” he said in a speech at Columbia University’s Teachers College, titled “’They Want Enough Rice’: Reflections on the late American War in Vietnam.”

For years, Ehrhart has taught writing workshops for veterans at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts Boston and done readings and lectures at a wide variety of places, from community arts centers to colleges and universities across the US and in Europe.

In similar fashion, Ehrhart tackles a wide range of American myths, myopias and irrational passions in Dead on a High Hill, his latest collection of essays, recently published by McFarland & Company. The title is from an essay on poetry from the Korean war, which summarizes a book he wrote on neglected poets who served in the “forgotten war.” In this collection of essays published over the past decade, he also pays homage to writers, high school teachers, sports coaches, friends and family members who influenced his growth from Marine grunt to much-accomplished writer, poet and teacher.

I even make the cut, in a review of Earth Songs, my 2003 collection of poetry. Indeed, Bill Ehrhart and I have been supporters of each other’s literary efforts since working together on collections of poetry by Vietnam veterans published decades ago. It's been, on my part, an often challenging learning experience.

Ehrhart’s relentless push to publish a veritable library of literary works probing every aspect of the war in Indochina challenged me to write more than I otherwise might have done. His brash way of writing about seemingly every facet of life delighted me so much that I shed some of my Scots/Anglo-Saxon reserve to reveal more about myself in my writings. And his fearless, unflagging tweaking of the conventions of journalism, book publishing and other aspects of American society encouraged me in my work as a journalist, as well as in writing poetry. 

In an essay on World War I poet Wilfred Owen, Ehrhart notes how hard it is to convey to another generation what we mean to say. “By the grace of chance, I survived my war,” he writes in “The Pity of War Poetry,” a homage to the famous British poet who died in battle, “and in an odd way I have indeed become a Wilfred Owen of sorts, a chronicler in verse of the war I fought. But I often wonder, when people—especially young people—read my poetry, do they understand what I am trying to say any better than I understood Owen when I was young? Sadly, I don’t image they do.”

And yet, he keeps trying to connect: writing, teaching, doing workshops and performing poetry readings with young veterans and old friends to audiences of all ages.  

For more information:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Peace Boat Update

The Golden Rule, the storied sailboat that sparked a successful campaign to stop nuclear bomb testing in the South Pacific, is well on the way to going to sea again.

Two years after a storm-battered relic was raised from Humbolt Bay in California, a crew of volunteers is working with experienced boat workers to restore the 30-foot wooden ketch and launch her under the flag of Veterans For Peace.

The Golden Rule sailed into history in 1958, when a retired Navy commander, Albert Bigelow, and three other men set out from Hawaii to deliberately intrude into the US nuclear test zone in the Marshall Islands as a protest of exploding radioactive bombs in the Pacific Ocean. Their arrest by the US Coast Guard set off a wave of protests across America that prodded President Eisenhower to halt the testing and start negotiations with the Soviet Union that culminated in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty that ended atmospheric nuclear tests.   

The “peace boat,” as Project Coordinator Fredy Champagne calls her, “will once again sail …in opposition to militarism and the manufacture, testing, and use of nuclear weapons,” to quote the project mission statement. “Over a period of years, we plan for the Golden Rule to take its message of peace far and wide – on all three coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and inland waterways.”

The sailboat is being restored at Zerlang and Zerlang Boat Yard in Fairhaven, CA. Boat yard owner Leroy Zerlang salvaged the ship and donated space for the restoration. “The Golden Rule showed up in Humboldt Bay 10 years ago as the property of a local doctor,” Zerlang told the Eureka Times-Standard earlier this year. “It sank in a big storm two years ago this month. After he raised the battered 30-foot hull from the bottom of the marina, Zerlang said, the boat nearly became firewood.

”If it wasn't for her history, her very unique history, the boat would have been destroyed,” he said. “People have come from the East Coast to visit this boat. They come from Canada to visit this boat.”

During a visit to the boatyard on a vacation trip in July, I got an opportunity to see the work in progress. I was especially interested in the plank I’d purchased for $100 as part of a Golden Rule fund-raising swing through the East Coast that I encountered at the 2011 Clearwater music festival on the Hudson River.

“Pick a plank!” Restoration Coordinator Chuck DeWitt said with a chuckle, sweeping a hand along the restored hull. I missed the “Whiskey Plank” party in March, when the last new plank was put in place. Still, I was glad to have made a small contribution that helped put the project’s phase one $50,000 fund-raising goal over the top.  

DeWitt, a Navy vet, and Champagne, an Army vet, clambered up the scaffolding and into the boat’s open innards to show off the new Yanmar engine that an anonymous veteran had purchased. The boat lies in a specially built boat shop, surrounded by salvaged and donated rigging, masts, sails and other parts.

It is being restored as a project of Veterans For Peace Chapter 22 with the aid of other VFP chapters, other groups and individuals, including family members of the original Golden Rule peace crew.   

“The Golden Rule will be a powerful out reach effort,” Elliot Adams, past national president of Veterans For Peace, said in a support statement. “[H]er story is an inspiration to all of us, she will attracted local media attention and all of that will be used to deliver the message of peace and motivate people to work for peace.”

In a letter of support from VFP Chapter 61 in St. Louis, MO, chapter President Tom Tendler wrote: “We hope the Golden Rule may some day find its way up the Mississippi River.” Other chapters providing support for this project, and welcoming the Golden Rule to sail its waterways, range from San Francisco to Vermont.

Champagne reports in a recent email that work is well along at “cutting, fitting and installing the deck beams. … We have all the parts now to finish her, just trying to keep the funds coming to pay the worker to keep working with our volunteers.” 

Plans are to have the ship seaworthy in time for the 2013 Americas Cup Yacht Races in San Francisco and then tour ports along the West Coast, Gulf Coast, East Coast, Great Lakes, and rivers and canals in the Mid-West.

“The Golden Rule project is seeking regional volunteers to sail and to join the committee as the tour moves from one area to the next, and logistical and publicity assistance from local activists, especially from VFP chapters. Financial assistance is also welcome,” Champagne wrote in a recent article in The War Crimes Times. 

For more information:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pacific Diary

Lt. John Avery and ARM3c AT Graham Jr

In the summer of 1942, on his 21st birthday, Alfred Theodore "Ted" Graham, Jr., a trumpet player, volunteer fireman, and newspaper reporter from Jacksonville, New York, enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

After training as an aerial gunner-radioman, ATG was assigned to Bombing Squadron 15, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Essex, which departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on May 2, 1944, for combat duty in the Pacific.

Between flights in dive bombers engaged in battles with Japanese forces over islands from tiny Wake to the Philippines, Iwo Jima to Formosa, "Otto" Graham took copious notes and wrote letters, diary entries, and articles for the ship's newspaper and an aircrew newsletter, commenting on virtually everything--until the morning of November 11, 1944 (Armistice Day), when he was killed in a sea battle in Leyte Gulf.

Among "Gunner" Graham's possessions, shipped home in a small gray box stenciled "Camera Assembly Gun Sight Aiming Point," was a flight log book recording dozens of dive bomber missions, two gray-covered diaries detailing daily life from the state of his bowels to the swirl of battle, photos of himself and friends in flight uniforms and at ease in tee shirts, notes on midnight thoughts, ribald ditties on Navy life, snapshots of Hawaiian good-time girls. Posthumously, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other medals. His name was engraved on the flagpole at Camp Barton on the shore of Cayuga Lake, where he had made Eagle Scout.

Ted Graham was my uncle, whose legacy prodded me as I grew up--to be a better Boy Scout, to join the Army and go to war, to be a better writer. It has taken much longer than planned to figure out how to share his war diaries--hastily jotted in pencil and pen and hard to read in many spots--with the public. Then it dawned on me to post what I can on a website, along with other items saved in a family scrapbook. Here are some excerpts from the website-- is a work in progress:  

Hand-written notes sent home after he was killed in action:

Man, it seems, is conceived, born unto the world, lives his life, then leaves the world. But man born unto a war world generation may live but only a part of that life, not realizing even the lesser of his dreams. I am of that age and thinking perhaps some chronicler may some day wonder what some of this great group thought, dreamed, cherished and felt. From the war many will live, of course, but they, in their busy life, may take no time to write their thoughts. Hence, this:

For 20 years a man doesn't have much to show--physically. A class ring, pilot's wings, maybe, a cuff link or two ...


I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want 'em anymore!
They taught me how to fly,
Then they brought me here to die
I've had my belly full of war!
You can save all those Zeros
For the God-damned heroes,
Cause Distinguished Flying Crosses
Don't compensate for losses.
I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want them anymore!

I'll take the dames while the rest go down in flames,
I've no desire to be burned!
Air combat's no romance
It made me wet my pants,
I'm just an asphalt Arab I have learned.
You can save the Mitsubishis
For the crazy sons of bitches.
I'd rather have a woman,
Than get shot up in a Grumman.
I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want 'em anymore!

I'm too young to die
Even in a PBY
That's for the eager not for me!
I wouldn't trust my luck
To be picked up in a Duck
After I'd crashed into the sea.
I'd rather be a bar sop,
Than a flier on a flat-top,
With my hands around a bottle,
Rather than around a throttle.
I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want 'em anymore!

There is no promotion
On this side of the ocean,
And the guys at home don't really care!
You can have the new style chutes
And those fancy fighter boots,
I'll take comfy slippers and a chair.
You can be a hot shot in a Wildcat,
I'll take the hot-spot in a top hat.
To be the leader of a flight,
Ain't my idea of delight.
I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want 'em anymore!

At my bit I'm not a chafin'
For the joy of doin' strafin'
I hate the violent use of tail and rudder!
As for livin' like Flash Gordon,
I'll take boating on the Jordan,
I'm a simple soul and all for home and mudder.
You can have your shoulder holster,
I'll take resting on a holster,
And I'll trade my long "pig sticker"
For a tall cool drink of likker.
I wanted wings 'till I got the God-damned things,
Now I don't want 'em anymore!

Hey waiter - bring another round!

Atleast 14 of the VB-15 tail-gunners in this undated group photo died in combat actions in the Pacific between May 19-November 14, 1944: Sam Hogue, Guy Henry, Ken Jackson, Bill Lowe, L.G. Murray, J. Daniel Downey, George A. Duncan, Stan Whitby, Carl Shetler, Norm Schmidt, Chuck Swihart, Ted Graham, Paul Sheehan, Simon Dorosh. In most cases, they died with their pilots. In some cases, pilots died and gunners survived.

Of the 100 pilots and gunners in VB-15 who sailed to war in 1944, "45 came home unhurt. That was the highest loss rate in any Navy dive bombing unit during WWII," according to research by Steven R. Whitby for his book, "World War II Exploits of Bombing Squadron 15 and the Short Life of ARM2c Stanley Nelson Whitby while Flying from the USS Essex (CV-9) in 1944."

Losses for Air Group 15, which VB-15 was attached to along with fighter planes and a torpedo-bombing unit, were "Pilots: 43 killed or missing and 12 wounded. Crewmen: 29 killed or missing, and 13 wounded," according to "Pacific Champions" by Morris Markey in Liberty magazine, May 26, 1945.

For more information:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Combat Paper: On the Cutting Edge

Luana Ritch and Tina Drakulich at Combat Paper workshop

Tina and Joe Drakulich are still haunted by the mural their son David painted during leave before returning to war. David’s painting of a sunset-glowing mountainside city rising amid a meadow filled with black crosses conveyed a stark premonition that he would not be coming home from his third combat deployment. 

The 22-year-old paratrooper died in January 2008 on an Army patrol in Afghanistan. His parents were devastated—not only by grief, but also by an unexpected tsunami of post-traumatic stress that can sweep through survivors in military families. After relentless anguish that severely affected their jobs and life at home on a mountain range outside Reno, Nevada, the Drakulichs created an arts foundation in honor of their son and began networking with other Gold Star families, Blue Star families, artists and veterans.

Their networking on behalf of their vision of art helping to heal war wounds led to co-hosting a series of Combat Paper workshops, culminating in a weekend gathering at the Nevada National Guard headquarters in Carson City last month.

This event led to a memorable diversion from a vacation trip to California, when I was invited to participate in the workshop and read from the latest collection of my poetry, Life After War & Other Poems, published by Combat Paper Press. While there, I talked about developments at the Combat Paper program in New Jersey, hosted by the Printmaking Center of NJ and expanding to workshops at colleges and art institutions. 

As several veterans and military family members cut up old uniforms and created hand-made paper on which to imprint an astonishing variety of artwork, I learned about an impressively wide-scale collaboration by Nevada arts groups, state agencies and state colleges in providing arts and writing workshops for veterans and military families in various locales in the Sagebrush State.

Tina Drakulich teaches art therapy classes at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Reno. Jill Berryman, president of the Nevada Alliance for Arts Education, learned of the Combat Paper Project at a conference in San Francisco. With a son who served in Iraq and another son in the Air Force, she invited Combat Paper founder Drew Cameron, who had recently moved to San Francisco, to meet Tina and do workshops in Nevada.

The two women liked the initial workshops in Reno so much they convinced others to help sponsor a bigger event this summer in the state capitol at the National Guard headquarters.

One young veteran showed up with several uniforms donated by battle buddies. A Vietnam veteran came with his wife, but found it too emotionally unsettling to go inside the room where the workshop was held. His wife returned the day of my poetry reading with a copy of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, which I’d helped compile and co-edit in 1972. There was a further serendipitous connection, we discovered: the upset vet served in Vietnam with a friend of mine.

Luana Ritch showed up with her 1970s-era Women’s Army Corps field jacket, which held a lot of unsettling memories. She wasn’t sure whether to put the old WAC uniform in a museum or cut it up and turn it into an artistic statement. Among these memories was serving in South Korea in 1980 in her summer-weight uniform and being denied winter gear by a supply clerk. “You are non-essential personnel!” the young woman was told by a fellow soldier at a base within battle distance of the heavily armed DMZ border with North Korea, she recalled.

Ritch, a retired Army Reserve staff sergeant, arrived at the Combat Paper workshop via writing workshops sponsored by the Nevada Office of Veterans Services and taught by professors at state colleges. She attended the writing workshops, she said as she sloshed paper pulp made from sliced up pieces of her old field jacket, because a PTSD counselor at the VA suggested writing poetry as a creative method of therapy.

“Don’t say I’m not welcome/ Don’t tell me I’m not useful,” she wrote in a poem in an anthology published last year by the Nevada Veterans Writing Project. “Just say that I’m a woman/ Just tell me I’m a soldier.” Other poems she wrote in that collection about episodes in her 26-year military career are titled “Anger,” “Nightmares,” “Something Wrong,” “Being Jumpy,” “Grief” and “Healing.” 

In her day job, Ritch is head of the state Health Statistics bureau, which recently issued a stunning report on skyrocketing rates of suicide among young male and female veterans in Nevada. She knows a great deal about grief. Now she was looking to learn more about healing. 

As she weighed what to put on the paper she was crafting, Ritch examined a variety of art pieces that Tina Drakulich had created on paper made with one of her son’s Army uniforms. These included a photo of David in uniform printed on sheets of Combat Paper, a swirling abstract art piece that encapsulated a tuft of hair from a family horse that died recently, and paper cranes made of carefully folded squares of Combat Paper. Her plan is to create a mobile installation with one thousand paper cranes as a contemplative war memorial.

Paper cranes made of Combat Paper    (photo/Jan Barry)

“Now I get what this is about,” Joe Drakulich abruptly said, after conversing with nearly everyone in the room and trying out each of the hands-on steps of papermaking, in which people talk about whatever is on their minds as they work together, until they generally hit upon something that really bothers them, triggered perhaps by a memory buried in an old piece of uniform.  “It’s about revealing what is unseen.”

Joe Drakulich is a native Nevadan who trains horses, flies his own airplane and drives long-haul delivery trucks. He also sings opera and loves art. He’s still trying to figure out how to heal after his son died in Afghanistan. He liked the creative process of Combat Paper. Tina Drakulich juggles her work as an elementary school teacher with directing the David J. Drakulich Art Foundation.

As the small group of veterans and military family members sliced up uniforms on tables set out on a basketball court, put small pieces through a portable beater that creates a watery pulp and strained pulp through screens to create sheets of paper in various military hues, National Guardsmen and women on weekend duty stopped by to see what was going on. Some asked if they could participate in future workshops.

The Drakulichs’ goal, working with Jill Berryman and others, is to create a Combat Papermaking workspace and conduct on-going art workshops in Nevada.

This is how they framed their mission statement: “David died at the age of 22, struck by an I.E.D. in Afghanistan, he left a legacy that includes over three hundred works. His ongoing work, now by proxy, is the David J. Drakulich Art Foundation: For Freedom of Expression. Friends and family joined to create this organization that helps veterans, active service members and gold star families and memorializes David for what he had been know for, art. Hence the vision statement, Art Heals War Wounds, has been created and now guides the foundation’s activities.”

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Military Culture and Suicide

One of America’s biggest hidden tragedies is suicide. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was a virtually forbidden topic. When I began working as a news reporter in the 1970s, I bumped into a tradition in journalism that suicides were not reported. When a Vietnam veteran in a small town I covered as a community news reporter killed himself, I didn’t know what to do with the information.

Now the lid has burst off an explosive human rights and public health issue. 

“More U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan war,” Time Magazine noted in a recent front cover special report. The current military suicide rate is roughly one death per day, Time reported. Meanwhile, military veterans have been committing suicide at a furious clip, about 18 per day.

How to stop an epidemic of soldiers and veterans killing themselves in greater numbers than are dying on battlefields has baffled military leaders and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Despite crises hotlines and post-traumatic stress counseling programs, instituted in response to concerns that many soldiers have done multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has clung to its Napoleonic attitude that armies are trained for killing people, not fostering healthy citizens.

When a young recruit slit his wrists during my Army basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC in the summer of 1962, a drill sergeant screamed at our platoon that he would personally provide razor blades to anybody else who wanted to kill themselves. That hard-boiled attitude didn’t deter soldiers who decided to end it all. The next year, during my tour in Vietnam, suicide was a leading cause of death among the U.S. military expeditionary force—after aircraft crashes and guerrilla warfare firefights. Suicide continued to be a leading cause of death among Vietnam veterans for years. But it was long hidden by the lack of publically reported statistics on suicides by soldiers and veterans.  

Despite the rhetoric of concern for the welfare of soldiers by today’s military leaders, little has changed.

These days, the U.S. military is revealing it has a very big problem, based on suicide statistics that have skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, the Marine Corps is court-martialing a Marine who slit his wrists in Okinawa—a punitive action that hasn’t put a damper on the rising rate of suicides, which more than doubled in the Army since 2003 and is heading upward in all armed services this year.

Nor was the appalling rate of military suicides reversed by a blistering message from Major General Dana Pittard, a commander at Ft. Bliss, Texas, who wrote “on his official blog that he was ‘personally fed up’ with ‘absolutely selfish’ troops who kill themselves, leaving him and others to ‘clean up their mess,’” Time Magazine reported. 

Despite the towering anger and angst of military commanders, the suicide rate for veterans is ever higher. A recent state study in Nevada found that “female Nevada veterans committed suicide at more than triple the overall rate for females statewide and nearly six times the national rate for females,” KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported in March. “Nevada male veterans had a suicide rate 62 percent higher than the statewide rate for males and 152 percent higher than the national rate for males.”

However, the CBS-affiliate station’s report added, “No national statistics exist for veteran suicides, so it is impossible to compare Nevada to other states, though some studies have estimated that the suicide rate among veterans nationally is three to four times that of the general population.”

The New York Times dug deeper into national studies of veterans’ suicides and reported in April that “Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health.”

Government officials speculate that the alarming suicide rate among veterans in Nevada is due to the region’s high unemployment. Yet that doesn’t explain why other folks also facing a grim and long-lasting drought in jobs but didn’t serve in the military don’t kill themselves at a similarly high rate.   

Among the worrisome statistics now available is that the majority who killed themselves while on active duty were not in combat. This suggests that U.S. military culture is a big part of the problem, regardless of where one serves. The military attitude is that the solution to international disputes is to whip the troops to continuously train for, supply equipment for, transport and wage endless war in numerous places around the world. Surely this is depleting the ability to cope among a great many exhausted soldiers, whose complaints are ignored.

Wartime military culture drums into soldiers, from cooks and mechanics to front-line grunts, that the solution to seemingly intractable problems is to shoot or blow something up and kill somebody. Is it any wonder that so many soldiers who kill themselves shoot themselves?

According to Time Magazine’s report, the majority of suicides are committed by enlisted men, whose problems are often attributed by the military to be personal. In the military hierarchy, enlisted men have little voice to speak up for themselves. In a case highlighted by Time, however, the wife of an Army doctor was brushed aside by a military commander when she sought help for her over-stressed husband—who hung himself in March while on duty at Trippler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. Now that wife and other widows and family members are publically telling the stories of their lost loved ones and pressing for changes in how soldiers and veterans are treated.      

The total number of U.S. military deaths by suicide since 2001 is now more than 2,600—in contrast to just under 2,000 military fatalities in Afghanistan, Time reported last week. The news magazine did not break down how many of 4,486 military deaths in Iraq were self-inflicted.

Among the stories that should be widely heeded is that of the death of Army Colonel Theodore Westhusing, who shot himself in June 2005 shortly before his tour in Iraq was to end, leaving a bitter suicide note addressed to his commanders.

“I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied -- no more,” Westhusing, who was 44 and due to return to teaching at West Point, wrote. “I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.” Westhusing’s wife told Army investigators he’d conveyed these concerns to her, as well. “I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on,” she said.

As The Texas Observer noted in an extensive report: “The disillusion that killed Ted Westhusing is part of the invoice that America will be paying long after the United States pulls its last troops out of Iraq,” wrote reporter Robert Bryce. “Some 846 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. Of those, 22 were suicides. Westhusing’s suicide, like nearly every other, leaves the survivors asking the same questions: Why? And what was it that drove the deceased to such despair?”

Perhaps Westhusing and many others might still be alive, if the U.S. military provided a civics course that encouraged soldiers to speak up about troubling experiences and were attentively listened to in discussing what can be done to improve the situation.

In the absence of such action, some soldiers, veterans and family members have been sharing their own stories in public meetings and to the news media and working on climbing out of black holes of despair through art and writings about disturbing experiences in the military and since coming home.

In whatever forum or format, speaking out can be life-saving for a soldier or veteran in anguish, as well as for the public to understand what’s going on in our military that’s so devastating.

For more information: