Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Continuing Cost of the War in Iraq

On March 7, 2007, Army Spc. Trevor Hogue was inside his barracks in Baghdad, describing his morning on the battlefield. "I saw things today that I think will mess me up for life," Hogue typed to his mother, Donna, as she sat at her computer thousands of miles away from Iraq, in Granite Bay, Calif.

That day the young soldier, whose assignment included driving a Humvee through perhaps the most dangerous ZIP code on the globe, saw his sergeant blown to pieces. He saw the bodies of half of the men in his platoon torn apart. Heads were cut off and limbs severed. It happened 30 yards in front of him, and he had never been so afraid, he told his mom. "My arms are around you," Donna Hogue wrote. "You'll be alright." But Hogue never really recovered.

This month, he committed suicide by hanging himself in the backyard of his childhood home. He was 24 years old.

According to the Army, soldiers are killing themselves at the highest rate in nearly three decades, surpassing the civilian suicide rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. At least 128 U.S. soldiers killed themselves last year, a number that has risen four years in a row. The death toll could be even higher this year. Through April, 91 soldiers had committed suicide. Hogue's death, because it occurred after he was discharged, is not included in those statistics. But his friends and loved ones believe he was a casualty of war as much as any soldier on active duty.

"You think that they are safe when they get back home," Donna Hogue said, tearfully reading printed messages that she and her son exchanged while he was at war. "They're not. The reality of the things that they experienced continues to haunt them."

After his 15-month tour in Iraq ended and he came home the following February, Hogue suffered bouts of depression. He slept too much and uncharacteristically lashed out at strangers. Loud noises disturbed him.

Responsible and law-abiding in the past, he became somewhat reckless and was charged with a DUI. Despite symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he never was formally diagnosed with the condition. His mother said he never filed a disability claim with the government in part because it required too much paperwork. If the disorder had been confirmed, the military would have been responsible for paying medical benefits.

Hogue talked to counselors and took medications for depression and anxiety. But he was skeptical the treatments were helping him, according to his family.

The Army has estimated that as many as one in eight soldiers returning from combat suffer from PTSD, which is caused by severe psychological trauma and can cause flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, detachment and irritability, among other problems.

"When Trevor got back, he seemed more melancholy, less outgoing," said one of his closest friends, Troy Peterson. He was angrier and more serious, Peterson said, though he still displayed flashes of his goofy sense of humor.

"I believe that the things Trevor saw in Iraq created demons in his mind," said his father, Rod Hogue. "He couldn't get rid of them, and they destroyed him."

Trevor Hogue, an avid guitarist whose hero was Arnold Schwarzenegger and his favorite movie "The Terminator," surprised everyone when he announced at age 19 that he had quit college and was joining the military. "I was shocked, to be honest," said Peterson, who described Hogue as a "ridiculously fun" guy who dressed in a skirt on "opposite day" in the sixth grade, helped found a cheerleading group called The Hooligans at Granite Bay High and admired the "hoverboards" featured in the film "Back to the Future." "He had never talked about the military before."

On another level, though, Hogue's decision made sense, his parents said. After 18 months of college, Hogue was tired of the "party scene" at Chico State, his father said, and the rules and structure of the military appealed to him. His mother said he wanted to carve out his own identity. "It was a way of making his mark in the world," she said. But as he shipped out to boot camp, knowing he could be sent to war, his family was terrified for him, said his sister, Tracey. "It was so hard to say goodbye."

Hogue excelled in his training, winning an award for "outstanding soldier" at boot camp. He trained as a "tanker," but he never got to pilot a tank in Iraq, family members said. Instead, day after day he patrolled Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods in a convoy of Humvees, clearing buildings and "looking for bad guys," Rod Hogue said.

He kept up regular contact with family members, girlfriend Heidi Redmond and others through his MySpace page, e-mail messages and the occasional phone call.

When a friend asked if he needed anything, Hogue requested toys and school supplies, which he distributed to Iraqi children.

He shared little about his role in the war, but when he phoned his dad after the March 7 tragedy, he gave gory details. "He told me it was the worst day of his life," Rod Hogue said.

By the time he was honorably discharged from the Army and came home, his mother and father had ended 30 years of marriage and the family was strained. At first Hogue lived with his sister, then moved in with his mother. He became estranged from his dad.

He drove a shiny white Jeep, which he bought shortly after his discharge, and attached an empty grenade to its gear shift. He enrolled in the California Regional Fire Academy, graduating in January, and was planning to take paramedic training. That plan got sidelined when he was charged with DUI. "He took responsibility for what happened, but he was devastated," Rod Hogue said. He became darker and more introverted. Hogue went to counseling appointments but was dubious because none of his caregivers had been in combat or fully understood his issues. The medications "make me feel numb, but that's better than how I was feeling before," he told his sister.

Something happened to Hogue, though, in the weeks before his death, loved ones said. He seemed to have achieved some kind of peace. He rode his bicycle, hung out with friends, played his guitar. "He seemed like the old Trevor," his mother said. "Normal as can be." Perhaps, his sister said, he was at peace because he had finalized the decision to take his life.

On the day before he died, Hogue wrote a note in his personal journal. "Please know that I am happy, finally," he said. His final journal entry was dated June 2, 2009. "Enjoy the future," he wrote. "I hope hoverboards are invented."


Ms. Moon said...

This is an amazing piece. You know that. And it gives me even more reason to feel such guilt and shame. I knew that the war we entered into in Iraq was going to lead to more pain and agony and suffering than could be imagined and yet, I stood by and did nothing. Me and millions of others. We knew and we did nothing. We let men who have never been to war send thousands into a war that had no purpose, no reason, no real strategy. And the results have been mind-bogglingly tragic.
And we, the people who stood by and were silent, are to blame as well. We were silent because the damn president had everyone convinced that if you questioned the war, you were not a good American. This didn't bother me, especially. I've never been a "good American." But I remember writing a piece for the local paper and then not submitting it because of the incendiary times. I feel so cowardly about that.
I think a lot of our lawmakers probably do too. They, too, fell prey to the fear and false patriotism of the Bush administration.
Okay. That's enough. I'm sorry for such a long comment.
Thanks for this post.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Ms. Moon,
Don't be sorry--thank you for your comment. I feel similarly. I went to one peace rally in the early part of war. That was my big contribution. Wow.



downtown guy said...

Mama, no one was silent. Don't you remember the huge rallies and massive protests? Most of us raised our voices against it, and no one in power gave a shit.

I know a guy who did a stretch in Iraq, came back and went AWOL. He said that the day he walked into a building and saw dead kids everywhere, he knew he was done. Another guy in his group went nuts and started trying to put the kids back together and had to be shipped home for treatment.

Lou said...

I feel helpless to change policy anymore. I used to think that my vote counted, my voice would be heard. Now I feel our politicians do whatever they want; it doesn't matter what the people that voted them in want.

The rules don't apply if you have enough money. The rules don't apply if your daddy has enough money. It would be one thing if we were making some progress, but I feel this is (like Vietnam) a war we cannot win. Just senseloss loss of young men..so sad.

gingermagnolia said...

Man, was this hard to read? Yes. Was it important to read? Fuck yes. It's hard to believe people still. don't. get. it. I have friends in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and stateside who have been there. It's amazing that people believe soldiers/marines/seamen can just "get on with it" when they return. How could they? How could anyone?

Sarcastic Bastard said...

It certainly is a war we cannot win. It's a total quagmire and a total waste.

Sarcastic Bastard said...