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It's easy to see why so many troops are succumbing to stress. Every trip "outside the wire" brings the possibility of attack from any direction, from people who look like everyday citizens and from everyday objects--cars, oilcans, dead animals, even human beings--refashioned into deadly bombs. "It's relentless," says a Marine who was deployed in al-Anbar province, which includes violent hotbeds like Ramadi and Fallujah. "From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, you're in danger." The life-threatening character of the daily job steadily erodes an individual's psychological immune system.
"It makes everyone even more susceptible, less resilient, to whatever happens," says Navy Captain Bill Nash, a psychiatrist who heads the Marines' Operational Stress Control Readiness (OSCAR) program in al-Anbar. "The war here has produced more significant stress injuries than any other conflict since Vietnam," he says. "And you'd have to be exceptionally optimistic and using massive denial to believe we are not going to generate a hell of a lot more of these stress injuries before we are done here."
Following deployment to Iraq, 17% of Army respondents and 19% of Marines reported a "perceived moderate or severe problem," according to a psychiatric study released last July by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. The study termed those estimates "conservative," and most cases, says Nash, will not be apparent until the troops are back home. The Marine who served in al-Anbar for seven months says that when he drives past potholes in his hometown, he wonders if they will explode. If the refrigerator door closes, he says, "I ask myself if that was incoming fire. A bomb?" And he's older than most grunts. "The younger guys--18, 19 years old--they're definitely going to have some challenges ahead," he adds. "God help somebody who pushes the wrong button on a kid who's been through these things."
Even the most battle-hardened troops report feeling symptoms like Harding's. They express anger, confusion and guilt about killing, guilt about surviving when a buddy doesn't. They confess to mood swings, depression, indifference to life, hypervigilance, isolation, suicidal tendencies. And all are plagued by images they can't forget, some so disturbing that combat-stress workers in the field have to monitor one another for a state known as "vicarious traumatization." A soldier deployed near Baghdad for nine months witnessed several members of his unit torn apart by mortar fire. "I can't erase that picture," he says. "It's something I cannot take anymore." Some stressed-out troops can't control their rage. "They don't know who the bad guy is," says Anthony Pantlitz, a chaplain with the Army's 785th Combat Stress Company, "so they hate everybody."
In the war zone, troops use a variety of means to try to stave off the aftershocks of trauma. Harding dealt with his anxieties by talking to other members of his company about them. Every time the events of that day ran though his mind, he said a prayer. He was reassured by visits from the battalion chaplain, who told the Marines to honor Halverson and their own good fortune by carrying on.