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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

'Enemy Contact. Kill 'em, Kill 'em.'

U.S. troops are trained to respond instinctively during combat. But the lessons do not prepare them for the emotional distress that may arise.

July 18, 2004|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — Tucked behind a gleaming machine gun, Sgt. Joseph Hall grins at his two companions in the Humvee.

"I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday," Hall says. "I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him."

The vehicle goes silent as the driver, Spc. Joshua Dubois, swerves around asphalt previously uprooted by a blast.

"I'm confused about how I should feel about killing," says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. "The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt."

Dubois turns back to the road. "We talk about killing all the time," he says. "I never used to talk this way. I'm not proud of it, but it's like I can't stop. I'm worried what I will be like when I get home."

The men aren't Special Forces soldiers. They're just ordinary troops with the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment serving their 14th month in Iraq, much of it in daily battles. In 20 minutes, they will come under attack.

Many GIs and Army psychiatrists say these constant conversations about death help troops come to grips with the trauma of combat. But mental health professionals within and outside the military point to the chatter as evidence of preventable anguish.

Soldiers are untrained, experts say, for the trauma of killing. Forty years after lessons learned about combat stress in Vietnam, experts charge that avoidable psychological damage goes unchecked because military officials don't include emotional preparation in basic training.

Troops, returning home with untreated and little-understood mental health issues, put themselves and their families at risk for suicide and domestic violence, experts say. Twenty-three U.S. troops in Iraq took their lives last year, according to the Defense Department -- an unusually high number, one official acknowledged.

On patrol, however, all that is available is talk.

"Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill," Hall says. "It's like it pounds at my brain. I'll figure out how to deal with it when I get home."

Home is the wrong place for soldiers to deal with combat experiences, some experts say.

"It's complete negligence," says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired psychology instructor at West Point who trains law enforcement officers and special operations soldiers.

"The military could train soldiers to talk about killing as easily as they train them to pull the trigger. But commanders are in denial. Nobody wants to accept the blame for a soldier who comes home a wreck for doing what his country asked him to do," he said.

The emotional and psychological ramifications of killing are mostly unstudied by the military, defense officials acknowledge.

"The idea and experience of killing another person is not addressed in military training," says Col. Thomas Burke, director of mental health policy for the Defense Department. "Training's intent is to re-create battle, to make it an automatic behavior among soldiers."

He defends the approach, saying that if troops think too much about emotional issues in combat situations, it could undermine their effectiveness in battle.

Other military representatives, including officers overseeing combat stress control programs, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Much of the military's research on killing and battle stress began after World War II, when studies revealed that only a small number of troops -- as few as 15% -- fired at their adversaries on the battlefield.

Military studies suggested that troops were unexpectedly reluctant to kill. Military training methods changed, Grossman and others say, to make killing a more automatic behavior.

Bull's-eye targets used in basic training were replaced with human-shaped objects. Battlefield conditions were reproduced more accurately, Burke says. The goal of these and other modifications was to help soldiers react more automatically.

The changes were effective. In the Vietnam War, 95% of combat troops shot at hostile fighters, according to military studies.

Veterans of the Vietnam War also suffered some of the highest levels of psychological damage -- possibly as many as 50% of combat forces suffered mental injury, says Rachel MacNair, an expert on veteran psychology. Most notable among the injuries was post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition contributing to violent outbursts years after soldiers leave battlefields.

"The more soldiers ignore their emotions and behave like trained machines rather than thinking people, the more you invite PTSD," says Dr. David Spiegel with the Stanford School of Medicine.

Military officials say there have been changes in treating psychological trauma since Vietnam.

Foremost among them is the creation of combat stress-control teams -- mental health professionals in Iraq who speak with troops immediately after traumatic events, such as a U.S. casualty.

Military psychologists say immediate intervention is important in avoiding mental distress.

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