America's longest war brings physical and mental injuries home
Ten years of fighting in the Middle East leaves many service members with the scars of war.
By Selena Larson Tweet
May 10, 2011
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001 when the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Come October, the United States will be entering its tenth year in the War in Afghanistan. Since then, men and women have been fighting in the Middle East in the longest war in U.S. history.
Many men and women who have been killed or injured were still in elementary school when the Twin Towers fell.
The U.S. deployed troops two countries east of Afghanistan to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) on March 20, 2003, and began Operation Iraqi Freedom. When the U.S. began decreasing their presence in Iraq in early 2010, they renamed the War "Operation New Dawn," to reflect the declining presence of troops.
One Marine's journey
Retired Marine Sgt. Christopher Lawrence, 24, from Milwaukee Wis., is one of the more than 42-thousand.
After graduating high school in Milwaukee a semester early in 2005, determined to pursue his military career, Lawrence became a part of the 235-year-old Marine Corps brotherhood. He was known as "the guy that could fix anything."
But soon Lawrence wasn't just fixing radios; he was leading four-man fire teams in Iraq.
His first unit was 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment (2/4), an infantry unit, and then he was later sent to 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, where he drove floating tanks off of ships transporting other infantry units. After operating throughout Iraq, Lawrence ended up stationed on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Where once ancient civilizations thrived, and where island paradises still exist, explosives demolish bridges that soldiers cross. Often, these pathways are targeted by Middle Eastern military to prevent American troops from gaining access to certain areas and make it difficult for transportation. It was one of these bridges Lawrence was crossing when he was sent flying as high as the trees overhead.
The day of his accident, Lawrence was placed on foot patrol after the vehicle he usually commanded was hit the day before. He remembers his Staff Sergeant talking about missing his young daughter's birthday back home.
The unit was sent across the bridge to inspect an island after receiving information of explosives kept there during low tide. Pairs of Marines loaded with gear made their way across. After four hours of patrolling the vacation-like island, the Marines decided to cross the bridge back to base.
They passed young children playing soccer, and kicked the ball with them.
A man walking across the bridge gave the Marines a gut feeling something was wrong, but they had no evidence to detain him. Walking two by two, Lawrence was in the middle of the 10-man team, crossing the bridge, separated for safety.
When they got close to the mainland, Lawrence stepped on an explosive that had been planted on the bridge by the man who had walked by. Lawrence was sent flying through the air, as high as the date trees on the mainland. He landed on sand and rolled toward the river.
"It was a blessing," Lawrence said. "If I had gotten hit over the river, I would have drowned."
Rescue was quick, and he rode up the beach with the door of a Humvee banging on his head. When he awoke at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, he thought he had been taken hostage; the foreign voices of the doctors were unrecognizable.
"No one knew what happened," he said. "Only that I came in, and I was the only one injured."
Lawrence mentally blacked out weeks of his life during the recovery process. "All the surgery, all the chaos, it went on forever."
He didn't know the extent of his injuries. His left arm was immovable, his lower right leg was gone and bones in his left foot were shattered. He was put through surgery every other day; the longest was 20 hours.
After Lawrence got hit, he lost five of his close friends, and was pummeled by the loss of men who he felt were as close as brothers.
"That hit me hard," he said. "So much life lost."
A fter returning home to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, he struggled with anger problems. Like many veterans back from war, it was hard for Lawrence to assimilate back into a society that didn't understand the strength and sacrifices of service members.
Since then, he has been involved with the wounded warrior community. He volunteers with a peer support group at the Veterans Village of San Diego, and started up an amputee support group for veterans going through similar obstacles.
"It's like a furnace. It forges your character. Some people are made out of iron; some are made out of aluminum."
He looks at his survival as a second chance, an opportunity to live a better, happier life. Though he lost part of his leg in Iraq, his injuries are a reminder to be thankful for a life spared. He now lives in San Diego, helping others cope with these changes.
Caring for combat
Combat deaths are often used as a barometer of the severity of war. But these figures alone are not a reliable source. As warfare becomes more advanced, so does the medical care that keeps troops alive.
In World War II, 30 percent of Americans injured in combat died. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that number has fallen to 10 percent. However, more men and women have come home injured from the Middle East than the Revolutionary War—six times over.
Because of these advancements, servicemen and women like Lawrence can walk after they lose a leg. And injuries that took the lives of soldiers in World War II can be survived if suffered in 2011.
A common injury for returning service members and frequently called the "signature wound," is traumatic brain injury (TBI). Blast-related injuries, rather than penetrating injuries such as bullets or shrapnel, usually cause TBI. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center estimates that since 2001, 167,913 military members have suffered TBI.
Due to advancements in medical care, more veterans survive their physical injuries, but they also must overcome their psychological traumas as well. Another medical condition affecting military members is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since 2001, an exponential increase in PTSD diagnoses has been noticed by the military.
While not all returning service members are diagnosed with PTSD, each one deals with the emotional change of returning home differently.
Organizations like Veterans Village of San Diego work with these veterans to help them physically and mentally adjust to coming home. Services to veterans including substance abuse recovery, mental health counseling, job training, and rehabilitation are offered at the Village.
“Everybody comes back from combat changed,” Lawrence said. “Don’t try and change them to who they were. Accept them for who they are."