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It Doesn't Take Much to Get PTSD

An analyst spends 3 weeks in Iraq, barely leaves the base, and is haunted for months.

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 2:22 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

I was one nightmare short of PTSD.

It didn't take much, that's what surprised me. No battles. No dead bodies. I spent just three and a half weeks as a contractor in Iraq, when the war there was at its height, rarely leaving the security of American military bases.

For several years now, Americans have become increasingly aware that a large number of veterans have gotten post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Studies estimate that at least 1 in 5 returning vets—possibly as many as 1 in 3—have it. Less notice has been given to the huge numbers of veterans who suffer some PTSD symptoms but not quite enough to be diagnosed as having the disorder. Civilian employees of the US government, contractors, and of course the inhabitants of the countries caught up in America's wars have gotten even less notice.

The thing is: It doesn't take much to develop the symptoms of PTSD. Our idea of what used to be called "shell shock" tends to be limited to terrible battles, not just the daily stress of living in a war zone or surviving a couple of close calls.

This is a story of how little it can take. I hardly saw a thing.

I.

My first day in Iraq ended with an explosion.

I had just made it "in theater," as they said, with a plane-load's worth of contractors coming for this or that bit of danger pay. I was 32 years old, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nervous, excited, frightened policy wonk. I had executed my first will.

People would ask me, Why go? For typical reasons: Adventure. Hazard pay. I was single. No kids, no lawn to mow. I thought it would be cool. I'd get to pal around with the troops and fly in helicopters and wear body armor. I'd get to learn more about the whole war thing, which had always obsessed me, as it does so many Americans. And if I were lucky, I might even catch a glimpse of how much more idiotic the Iraq War was than I already assumed. I had never bought into it, but that didn't mean I wasn't eager to be there.

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And then there was the work itself. My project fascinated me: to figure out what exactly was going on at a weird camp in Diyala Province where American troops were sort of detaining, sort of babysitting an Iranian cult group that was then on our list of foreign terrorist organizations. To a lawyer and policy wonk, a man whose boyhood had been consumed by all things military, the combo was irresistible.

***

That first night, after we finished dinner at the DFAC, the Dining Facility, my supervisor and I drove our rental Ford Explorer through the concrete T-wall jungle of the curiously named Victory Base Complex, the giant American encampment at the edge of Baghdad International Airport. As we arrived at the shipping container that was to be my new temporary home: explosions. Then a piercing cry from loudspeakers in the distance: INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!

The next day I'd learn that those explosions had blown up several people in front of the chow hall, right where we had exited just minutes earlier.

It was October 2007, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and General David Petraeus was the rising star of the moment with his "surge" strategy. Mortar and rocket attacks, which had once been repeated daily occurrences, were now plummeting. Gunfire, though, still prickitypricked the night, every night, out in the "Red Zone," that wild yonder of the country beyond those T-walls. It sounded like disorganized fireworks, only without the happy spectacle.

When the mortar and rocket attacks did come, it was usually early morning, between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m. I called it the Insurgent Alarm Clock. Afternoons featured "controlled dets." A boom here or there as soldiers detonated duds, blew up UXO (unexploded ordnance).

The mortar and rocket attacks usually came early morning. I called it the Insurgent Alarm Clock.

The nights whirred with helicopters. Blackhawks patrolled the perimeter in pairs. Even on the ground they kept their rotors spinning for quick liftoffs, and there was a landing zone near my bed. But that didn't keep me from sleeping once I got some earplugs. Nor could the snores of the seven other men in the corrugated-metal containerized housing unit keep me awake. The tension was too exhausting.

II.

The worst day started with an explosion.

Shockwaves rattled me awake. That was a first. Usually I just heard the insurgent alarm clock; I didn't feel it.

Now, it was stone quiet in the shipping container. No more grunts from sleeping men. I craned my neck. In the low light cast by the lamp of an early riser tying his running shoes, I could see that we were awake to a man, frozen like rabbits, ears perked, waiting for the next bass rumble.

You see, insurgents wouldn't attack the world's most powerful military with just one shot. They'd lob a bunch of mortars or rockets over the concrete, and, to increase their odds of actually hitting something, they wouldn't aim at just one place.

Kaboom.

Closer. My heart pounded, but what to do with the knowledge that the attack was coming our way? I could've made a dash for one of the concrete bomb shelters that dotted the base, but there weren't any nearby. Besides, no one thought they did much good. They were open on two sides and people got hurt running to them.

No big deal, I thought. It was well known that the insurgents' aim sucked.

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