“Nightmares and Numbers”

by Pamela Enz

I am a numbers geek. I find working out combinations and permutations even more fun than conjugating French verbs. Therefore, it was a mixed blessing for me when The Post tried to attack a New York Times article on a spate of recent homicides committed by returning Iraqi War veterans on the basis of statistics rather than engage in a meaningful dialogue about war and what it does to the psyches of men and the families they return home to. I could have played the stats to support my own personal view of this war, or patriotism. I could’ve added my rant to the din on a foundation of figures, stretching the numbers to any end. And I might have if PTSD were just another lettered disease for me. You know, in the class of those rapidly expanding maladies that the makers of all those versions of Paxil profit from. The six hundred and forty forms of anxiety that used to be called a bad day. No, post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor’s guilt, shell shock, the multi-labeled emotional scarring and spiritual destruction so often visited on soldiers and victims of violence is a very personal issue for me.

My aunt laid it out with a shattering simplicity, “They pumped them full of amphetamines, threw them out on the beach to kill. How else you gonna get twenty-year-old boys who’d never seen anything bigger than Staten Island, ‘No-Where-ville’, to run bayonets through other young men? Boys. They were boys screaming and covered with blood. They kept them high on speed. Just to keep them doing it like it was normal like thatas if they’d grown up believing their lives would be shrieking and killing this far from home.”

She didn’t say this to me until she was past eighty and my uncle was dead. My uncle, who I remember most fondly for swimming out to pull me on my rubber raft safely back to shore, each perfect summer day. I would drift knowing he’d appear just when my young self needed rescue. I remember his bald head followed by his smile bursting through the waves and then later at night, his nightmares – how he’d scream for dead buddies all the rest of his life.

The Post faulted The Times analysis of the homicide rates among returning Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. They compared the murder rates among the general population and found them higher than the returning vets. Right away I see that of course the general population contains a huge group of men who would not be admitted into the Armed Services to begin with based on, say, previous criminal activity or mental illness. There is the unanswerable question of how many of these specific men – the ones to begin with who volunteer to do things and go places most of us run from – how many of them would have gone on to commit murder if that wasn’t what they had trained for and experienced wrenchingly firsthand? We can never have that answer. We do not have the numbers for what their lives would have been if they were not soldiers first.

One could stretch and bend the numbers to make villains of both left and right. So much of the posturing regarding this invasion has been supported by the sexing up of statistics. We’re winning-losing. They’re supporting us, not supporting us. There is more violence, less oil, more blood. On and on, endless on. Playing with the numbers when it comes to destroyed souls and wrecked bodies seems at the very least inappropriate, if not plain offensive.

What I wish, however, is to raise some questions to which I admit in advance not having the answers to myself. Because, most importantly, I believe that their consideration will lead to an honest and truly valuable debate. Conversations that would include how these soldiers could be helped to begin with, regardless of how many there are, or how many there would be, if these particular men had not experienced that which we – our talking heads, pundits, and bloggers – can only theorize about.

I question the help, if any, these returning soldiers received when they came home. I ask how we can do better and what difference it might make. And aren’t we all responsible for getting it done? At the very least raising our voices to the people and power that might actually make a difference? I have these questions that have nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with gratitude. For people who are braver than me and less fortunate. These people unknown but appreciated and pained for in addition to one specific Marine I count myself so lucky to have been loved by. This ex-Marine, my uncle who continues in memory bobbing towards me through the wave-reflected sunlight. My sense of safety depending on him without question. Hoping somewhere, somehow his nightmares have ended.