By Miriam Raftery
Editor's Note: Military authorities declined to speak with East County Magazine regarding this story. We also requested permission to interview veterans at Balboa Naval Hospital to obtain a diverse range of views on conditions in mlitary service. Our request was denied.
October 18, 2008 (San Diego)--Army intelligence officer Selena Coppa has risked her freedom to speak out. “One of my soldiers died. He had PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome),” she said. “It was ignored.”
After she revealed the truth about the soldier’s death, Coppa told East County Magazine, her commanding officer threatened her. “He said if he’d known what I was going to do, he would have put me in Walter Reed in the mental ward and made sure I never got out. Then what would happen to my little girl?”
Coppa and Hess accuse the U.S. government and military officers of neglecting soldiers with serious mental health problems and of fostering a climate of intimidation against those who speak out.
TRAUMA ENDS IN TRAGEDY
Coppa was among 50 active duty military personnel and veterans gathered at a Rancho Bernardo residence on September 4th to share their stories in the last stop on a national State of the Union bus tour featuring Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.org). Local veterans, including Lakeside resident Derek Hess, were among those who spoke out.
There are undoubtedly veterans and military personnel who support the war, and East County Magazine is willing to publish their stories in a future issue. We asked Balboa Naval Hospital and several branches of the military specifically for permission to interview military personnel who support the war, but our request was denied.
At the IRVAW event, however, military members and veterans told tales that shocked even this seasoned reporter – not because of the grisly nature of battle stories, which I’d expected from those opposed to a war for various reasons. Instead, it was their descriptions suggesting a pattern of intimidation, neglect, harassment and callousness by our own U.S. commanders that I found the most disturbing.
A member of Army intelligence, Coppa would not discuss conditions in Iraq and noted that her opinion is strictly her own and does not reflect the military’s views. She said her unit refused to admit that a soldier who sought help for PTSD had problems. “They said they didn’t believe in PTSD,” she recalled. “He asked permission after he came home from a 15-month tour of duty to carry a gun. So they let him carry a Desert Eagle, an enormous handgun.”
Then friends of the young veteran got into a fight in a parking lot and an off-duty security guard used tear gas to break up the scuffle. “The gas caused him to go for his gun. He was reacting as he was trained to do,” said Coppa, adding that in Iraq, guns are often pulled as a warning. The security guard shot the soldier, striking him six times in the chest. “His fiancé miscarried twins,” she said softly. “They were a week away from getting married. He had a son…I’ll never his son crying at the funeral, because there was a picture of his father and his father wasn’t there.”
She blames her commanding officer for the soldier’s death. “He said `He came from the ghetto. He came from the streets, and he returned to the streets. He got what he deserved. They said a good CEO doesn’t grieve.” After the death, a gun safety briefing was held. “I lost my temper,” she recalled. “I said `What would’ve helped was if you got him treatment.”
Frightened by her commander’s threats, she wrote under a pseudonym for months until she transferred to a new command and became involved with IVAW. “They pointed out that as an NCO I had a duty to my soldiers, so that nothing like this would ever happen to another soldier.”
IVAW helps soldiers who are being harassed, she said, noting that the group has lawyers to help when needed. But it remains tough to get a PTSD diagnosis in the military, she noted. “The Army policy is to treat it before diagnosis. That’s a bad plan, because PTSD is never really cured.”
Coppa, originally from Brooklyn, New York, needed her parents’ permission to join the Army at 17 years of age. “When the war first started, I believed in it. I was very personally affected by September 11th,” she wrote. “I bought into everything that was said, because I firmly believed in our government, and that we would be too honorable to lie or mislead about something that important. I have since come to believe otherwise.”
LAKESIDE YOUTH THREATENED SUICIDE IF SENT TO IRAQ
Derek Hess of Lakeside joined the Army at 17. “I was a kid, fresh out of high school,” said Hess, now 21. After dropping out of El Capitan High School, he joined the military because “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” His parents believed the experience would help him “become a man,” he added.
But Hess quickly encountered harassment and disrespect among both his peers and officers. “Your own worst enemy can be the person right next to you,” he said, his voice shaking. “I was a victim of military hazing. I was tied up to a rolling chair and pushed down a flight of chairs.” Frightened and intimidated, he said he did not report the abuse.
Hess soon came to believe that the war in Iraq was wrong. “When they wanted to send me to Iraq, I said hell no, I won’t go…If it was for our country, I would go. But I knew it was for a nation’s resources and the exploitation of a people.”
The young, freckle-faced veteran said he was threatened with court martial and brought before military JAG corps. “They told me I would get eight years in prison in Fort Leavenworth—or death by firing squad,” he told East County Magazine.
He applied for conscientious objector status and continued fighting against the deployment order, threatening to kill himself if the Army sent him to Iraq. Eventually he was deployed to Europe, not the Mideast. “I sunk into a deep depression,” he recalled. “I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank a six-pack of beer at night.
Sent to a military medical center, he was confined to a mental ward for two weeks. “It was the other soldiers, Marines, who were really helpful,” he said. “The staff just wanted to dope me up and send me to Iraq.” Ultimately, a psychologist found him unfit for military service and he received an honorable discharge with a diagnosis of PTSD. “It took a lot of fighting,” he said, “but I got my freedom.”
Now he urges teenagers to question military recruiters. “The only thing they really told me that was true was that I’d get three hot meals a day and a place to lay my head,” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. “When I got out, the VA was supposed to give me medical…but they cut me off after six months. It’s been a struggle, trying to forget what happened. To earn the title veteran, to earn the title soldier, I tell these kids, it’s not worth it.” For more on his story, visit www.couraagetoresist.org/x/content/view/424/1.
FEMALE VET TESTIFIED TO DAILY SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Wendy Barranco testified to repeated sexual harassment, including pressure from a military surgeon who tried forcing her to provide sexual favors in order to work in an operating room in Iraq.
Wendy Barranco, 22, is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who spent nine months in Tikrit. She is now in college studying to be a primary care physician assistant.
“I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t have emotional and/or mental scars—and you’re lucky if that’s all you have when you come home,” she said of service in the war zone. “I worked with medics in the ER operating room. I was 19, seeing things I really shouldn’t have seen…things no one should see.”
Slim and attractive, Barranco has testified before Congress about repeated sexual harassment from her recruiter, in basic training, and at her duty station, where a military surgeon demanded sexual favors. In her testimony, which appears in the documentary film Winter Soldier, she described being subjected to sexual harassment on a daily basis.
Barranco told East County Magazine that her experience was common among U.S. servicewomen. “You have three options in the military. You can be a bitch, you can be a dyke, or you can be a whore,” she said, lighting another cigarette. She began smoking in Iraq to relieve stress, she noted, adding that 70% of those she served with are smokers. I find myself wondering how many of these stressed-out veterans will die prematurely of lung cancer or other smoking-related illnesses.
Barranco fended off sexual harassment and battery, but did not report those who harassed her because she felt intimidated and afraid that no one would believe her. “I was trying to survive. I knew if I said anything, there would be consequences,” she said.
Like the other soldiers here, Barranco came to believe that the war is wrong. “The Iraqi people don’t want us there,” she said. “I don’t think there was any reason for us to be in Iraq to begin with…I don’t see us making any progress.”
WINTER SOLDIER FILM DOCUMENTS GUILT FEELINGS OF SOLDIERS ORDERED TO SHOOT “ANYTHING WE SAW”
The Rancho Bernardo gathering included a showing of the documentary Winter Soldier: Afghanistan and Iraq. View excerpts of the film at www.ivaw.org.
Named for a quote by Revolutionary War patriot Thomas Paine, the film depicts Congressional testimony of soldiers who served in those war zones. The soldiers’ eyes have a haunted look. Their voices are filled with pain or at times, numbness. Their stories are chilling.
“These are the images that are burned into my mind,” one soldier in the film said as the faces of dead Iraqis are shown. “This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s father.”
Another soldier said the U.S. “used force very liberally.” He described shooting into houses, then broke down as he described trying in vain to save a little girl trapped in a burning car. “There were instances when people just lost it – lose a friend and lose their mind, like me.”
Yet another testified he was ordered to open fire on “anything we saw…See an individual with binoculars? Kill him. See someone on a cell phone? Kill them…I don’t know how many innocent civilians I killed.”
Another described shooting an Iraqi who fell to the ground. “My buddy is laughing,” he recalled, then told how the Iraqi’s eyes met his and “he kept screaming and screaming” until “I let another shot go. I killed that man in front of his father,” he said. “If you drop a bag on the street, we can kill them because of possible IUD. A lot of them are taking the trash out. Yes, I blame myself. It was encouraged by our chain of command but I pulled the trigger. I could have decided not to.”
One veteran told of trying to commit suicide by taking pills and drinking. “I woke up handcuffed to a guerney…so I deliver pizza now,” he said.
EPIDEMIC OF MENTAL HEALTH AMONG RETURNING WAR VETS
Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego) , whose district includes the southern portion of East County, accused the Veterans Affairs Department of covering up high suicide rates among Iraq War veterans in a hearing earlier this year. “I think there was criminal negligence,” he told Veterans Secretary Jim Peake. “The pattern is deny, deny deny,” he added. “Then when facts seemingly come to disagree with the denial, you cover up, cover up, cover up.”
A CBS News investigation revealed that veterans have suicide rates twice as high as other Americans. Most shocking, the suicide rate was highest among 20 to 24 year old veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young war vets are killing themselves at a rate of 22.9 to 31.9 per 100,000, or three to four times as high as the suicide rate for non-veterans (8.3 per 100,000).
“Those numbers clearly show an epidemic of mental health problems,” former VA analyst Paul Sullivan, now an advocate of veterans rights with Veterans for Common Sense, told CBS News.
The San Diego chapters of Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War co-sponsored the IVAW event in Rancho Bernardo. Kenyan Ralph, president of IVAW’s San Diego County chapter, said his group has about 30 local members. He encourages active duty members to join confidentially to avoid harassment, in hopes more will speak out after they leave the military.
Iraq War veteran Steve Mortillo from New Jersey said that the biggest threat to American freedom is not from foreign extremists, but rather from “a corrupt government that refuses to abide by the Constitution or the will of the people.”
A woman in the audience, who lost a son in Vietnam, thanked the veterans for speaking out. A Santee man stood and announced that he had refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War. “I spent two years in prison,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
“This war is going to end through active duty soldiers saying ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,” Morillo concluded, adding that soldiers who disagree with the administration must no longer be silenced. “This base tour is about making sure our brothers and sisters know they are not alone.”
Editor Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning journalist based in La Mesa, California.