New York Times OP-ED COLUMNIST
IT would be so much easier, Maj. Ben Richards says, if he had just lost a leg in Iraq.
Daniel Borris for The New York Times
Maj. Ben Richards, who suffered repeated head injuries in Iraq, sums up his future: “It comes to failure.”
Room for Debate: How Can We Prevent Military Suicides?(November 20, 2011)
Enlarge This ImageCourtesy of Ben Richards
A car bomb in Iraq in May 2007 left Ben Richards, then a captain, with a severe concussion. A second concussion left him with debilitating injuries.
Instead, he finds himself losing his mind, or at least a part of it. And if you want to understand how America is failing its soldiers and veterans, honoring them with lip service and ceremonies but breaking faith with them on all that matters most, listen to the story of Major Richards.
For starters, he’s brilliant. (Or at least he was.) He speaks Chinese and taught at West Point, and his medical evaluations suggest that until his recent problems he had an I.Q. of about 148. After he graduated from West Point, in 2000, he received glowing reviews.
“Ben Richards is one of the best military officers I have worked with in 13 years of service,” noted an evaluation, one of many military and medical documents he shared with me.
Yet Richards’s intellect almost exacerbates his suffering, for it better equips him to monitor his mental deterioration — and the failings of the Army that he has revered since he was a young boy.
Military suicides are the starkest gauge of our nation’s failure to care adequately for those who served in uniform. With America’s wars winding down, the United States is now losing more soldiers to suicide than to the enemy. Include veterans, and the tragedy is even more sweeping. For every soldier killed in war this year, about 25 veterans now take their own lives.
President Obama said recently that it was an “outrage” that some service members and veterans sought help but couldn’t get it: “We’ve got to do better. This has to be all hands on deck.” Admirable words, but so far they’ve neither made much impact nor offered consolation to those who call the suicide prevention hot line and end up on hold.
The military’s problems with mental health services go far beyond suicide or the occasional murders committed by soldiers and veterans. Far more common are people like Richards, who does not contemplate violence of any kind but is still profoundly disabled.
An astonishing 45 percent of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries, in many cases psychological ones. It’s unclear how many are exaggerated or even fraudulent, but what is clear is this: the financial cost of these disabilities will be huge, yet it is dwarfed by the human cost.
Richards’s finest hour, and in retrospect his worst, came in Iraq in 2007. He was then a captain assigned to the city of Baquba, a hotly contested area where he was welcomed on his first day by a 12-hour firefight. In Baquba, Richards pioneered an initiative tocooperate with local Sunni Muslim militias — who had previously attacked Americans — to defeat the local branch of Al Qaeda.
This was ferociously controversial at first and Richards was bitterly criticized by other officers for collaborating with the enemy. But the strategy worked and was broadly adopted by the military in Iraq. The New York Times wrote that year about Richards’s leadership; the Army promoted him, and he seemed destined for greatness.
Then one day a car bomb destroyed his Stryker vehicle, giving Richards a severe concussion that left him nauseated and dazed for a week. Three weeks later, a roadside bomb knocked him out again, and he suffered a second concussion, with similar results.
Richards, now 36, struggled for months with headaches, fatigue, insomnia and fainting spells; once he passed out in the middle of a firefight. Still, he didn’t seek medical care. He figured he wasn’t really injured, and that has been a widespread problem: the military value system is such that warriors disdain medical care as long as they are physically capable of fighting.
“Coming from an Army ethos,” he says wryly, “you’re not even entitled to complain unless you’ve lost all four limbs.”
Yet there’s growing evidence that concussions — whether in sports or in the military — are every bit as damaging as far bloodier wounds. When someone suffers blows to the head, the result can be a traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I. This, eventually, was Richards’s diagnosis.
Richards’s wife, Farrah, was thrilled when he returned “safely” from Iraq in the fall of 2007, and she counted them both very, very lucky. But almost immediately, Farrah says, she noticed that the man who came home wore her husband’s skin but was different inside. “There were obvious changes in his personality,” she recalls. “He was extremely withdrawn; he would go into the bedroom for hours.”
A once boisterous dad who loved to roughhouse with his children — now there are four, ages 1 to 14 — Ben no longer seemed to know how to play with them. He often suffered incapacitating headaches, overwhelming fatigue and constant insomnia. Especially when dozing, he was on a hair trigger. If Farrah rose at night, she sometimes didn’t return to bed for fear that her husband might think she was an enemy and attack her. Instead, she’d spend the rest of the night on the couch.
For a woman who had been functioning as a single mom and was now eager to resume her former married life, all this was devastating. And it got worse. Farrah would tell her husband things, and then he would repeatedly forget — and reproach her for not telling him. He was distracted, withdrawn and unhelpful, and he repeatedly let her down.
“Our marriage was at real risk at this point,” Richards says. “We got to a point where we thought about separating.”
Yet it became increasingly apparent that the problem wasn’t that Richards was a jerk. It was that he had a war injury, an invisible one.