Sunday, July 18, 2004


U.S. troops are trained to respond instinctively during combat. But the lessons do not prepare them for the emotional distress that may arise.
By Charles Duhigg
Times Staff Writer

July 18, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Tucked behind a gleaming machine gun, Sgt. Joseph Hall grins at his two companions in the Humvee.

"I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday," Hall says. "I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him."

The vehicle goes silent as the driver, Spc. Joshua Dubois, swerves around asphalt previously uprooted by a blast.

"I'm confused about how I should feel about killing," says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. "The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt."

Dubois turns back to the road. "We talk about killing all the time," he says. "I never used to talk this way. I'm not proud of it, but it's like I can't stop. I'm worried what I will be like when I get home."

The men aren't Special Forces soldiers. They're just ordinary troops with the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment serving their 14th month in Iraq, much of it in daily battles. In 20 minutes, they will come under attack.

Many GIs and Army psychiatrists say these constant conversations about death help troops come to grips with the trauma of combat. But mental health professionals within and outside the military point to the chatter as evidence of preventable anguish.

Soldiers are untrained, experts say, for the trauma of killing. Forty years after lessons learned about combat stress in Vietnam, experts charge that avoidable psychological damage goes unchecked because military officials don't include emotional preparation in basic training.

Troops, returning home with untreated and little-understood mental health issues, put themselves and their families at risk for suicide and domestic violence, experts say. Twenty-three U.S. troops in Iraq took their lives last year, according to the Defense Department — an unusually high number, one official acknowledged.

On patrol, however, all that is available is talk.

"Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill," Hall says. "It's like it pounds at my brain. I'll figure out how to deal with it when I get home."

Home is the wrong place for soldiers to deal with combat experiences, some experts say.

"It's complete negligence," says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired psychology instructor at West Point who trains law enforcement officers and special operations soldiers.

"The military could train soldiers to talk about killing as easily as they train them to pull the trigger. But commanders are in denial. Nobody wants to accept the blame for a soldier who comes home a wreck for doing what his country asked him to do," he said.

The emotional and psychological ramifications of killing are mostly unstudied by the military, defense officials acknowledge.

"The idea and experience of killing another person is not addressed in military training," says Col. Thomas Burke, director of mental health policy for the Defense Department. "Training's intent is to re-create battle, to make it an automatic behavior among soldiers."

He defends the approach, saying that if troops think too much about emotional issues in combat situations, it could undermine their effectiveness in battle.

Other military representatives, including officers overseeing combat stress control programs, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Much of the military's research on killing and battle stress began after World War II, when studies revealed that only a small number of troops — as few as 15% — fired at their adversaries on the battlefield.

Military studies suggested that troops were unexpectedly reluctant to kill. Military training methods changed, Grossman and others say, to make killing a more automatic behavior.

Bull's-eye targets used in basic training were replaced with human-shaped objects. Battlefield conditions were reproduced more accurately, Burke says. The goal of these and other modifications was to help soldiers react more automatically.

The changes were effective. In the Vietnam War, 95% of combat troops shot at hostile fighters, according to military studies.

Veterans of the Vietnam War also suffered some of the highest levels of psychological damage — possibly as many as 50% of combat forces suffered mental injury, says Rachel MacNair, an expert on veteran psychology. Most notable among the injuries was post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition contributing to violent outbursts years after soldiers leave battlefields.

"The more soldiers ignore their emotions and behave like trained machines rather than thinking people, the more you invite PTSD," says Dr. David Spiegel with the Stanford School of Medicine.

Military officials say there have been changes in treating psychological trauma since Vietnam.

Foremost among them is the creation of combat stress-control teams — mental health professionals in Iraq who speak with troops immediately after traumatic events, such as a U.S. casualty.

Military psychologists say immediate intervention is important in avoiding mental distress.

"We get them to voice what they are feeling, to realize they're not the odd man out, not to blame themselves," says Capt. Robert Cardona, a psychiatrist with a combat stress-control team based in southern Iraq.

But the demands of the military's mission and a soldier's mental health are sometimes at odds.

"Our primary goal is to keep soldiers functional, so they can continue to fight," Cardona says. "Everything else, including feeling well, is second to that."

Mental health technicians are available for troops who request help, Cardona says, but stress teams aren't deployed to bases just because U.S. forces kill hostile fighters. He says about half of the soldiers seeking help are traumatized because they killed someone.

"Killing unleashes emotions few people are prepared to deal with," Cardona says. "We help soldiers put those emotions and experiences away, so they can go into battle the next day. We set the expectation that shock is temporary, and that they will return to duty."

He's familiar with the death fixation in the soldiers' conversations.

"When they talk, they're trying to prove to themselves and each other that what happens doesn't matter," he says. "There's a posturing going on, and sometimes soldiers themselves don't know how much they are affected by what they see. They start to believe what they tell each other."


Talk Turns to Killing

The men of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Alpha and Charlie companies are resting and playing cards in the shade of a staircase here, and the talk turns to killing.

"I enjoy killing Iraqis," says Staff Sgt. William Deaton, 30, who killed a hostile fighter the night before. Deaton has lost a good friend in Iraq. "I just feel rage, hate when I'm out there. I feel like I carry it all the time. We talk about it. We all feel the same way."

Sgt. Cleveland T. Rogers, 25, avoids dwelling on his actions.

"The other day an Iraqi guy was hit real bad, he was gonna die within an hour, but he was still alive and he started saying, 'Baby, baby,' telling me he has a kid," Rogers says. "I mentioned it to my guys after the mission. It doesn't bother me. It can't bother me. If it was the other way around, I'm sure it wouldn't bother him."

Spc. Nathan Borlee tries to keep a lid on what he's feeling.

"I feel like I'd lose control if I think about it too much, so I don't," the 23-year-old says. "Usually everybody comes back and just gives everybody a hug. You kind of get overwhelmed by the feelings."

Without the proper training, experts say, these conversations may contribute to mental injuries.

Grossman says training troops to have therapeutic discussions about killing is "not that hard." His curriculum, used by law enforcement officers and in the wake of traumas such as school shootings, focuses on mental and physical techniques to consciously manage anxiety and other emotional reactions to killing.

"To make killing instinctual, rather than conscious, is inviting pathological, destructive behavior," Grossman says. "We have to give soldiers a vocabulary to talk through emotions and teach them not to be embarrassed by troubling feelings."

Grossman says his suggestions have been overlooked by military commanders who are uncomfortable with the emotionally destructive aspects of military service.

"The military goes for long periods without having to kill anyone," he says. "Generals don't spend a lot of time dealing with the parts that come after battle."

Others say today's soldiers are fundamentally different from previous generations.

"These guys grew up with video games," says Maj. John Hamilton, 50, an Army chaplain stationed in southern Iraq, where he counsels troops. "They've seen thousands of people die on TV. They're already numb. It scares me that some take delight in combat.

"Others just become immediately scared, have nightmares. But that reaction is more frowned upon."


Duty vs. Ethics

Back in the Humvee, Hall and Dubois approach an abandoned elementary school that commanders say is hiding mortars and hostile fighters. Suddenly, the ground is punctuated by the yellow bursts of improvised explosive devices.

Hall begins firing his .50-caliber machine gun, the phosphorus on each fifth bullet trailing long, red streaks.

The constantly squawking radio pauses briefly and a calm, transmitted voice fills the truck.

"Enemy contact," the radio broadcasts. "Kill 'em, kill 'em."

Ahead, a tank pushes a hole through the school's wall. Staff Sgt. Robert McBride, 35, enters a classroom and sees a group of six Iraqis with guns, he later recounts. He throws a grenade. The blast cuts one Iraqi in half, and the rest lie dying from abrasions and burns on their bodies. The soldiers collect dozens of mortar rounds and return to their vehicles. McBride looks at the hostile fighters once more.

"It did not bother me at all to see those bodies up close," McBride says later. "I'm a warrior. You're either born to this or you're not.

"My soldiers, they are all warriors. They have no problems. I don't let them have problems. There is no place in this Army for men who aren't warriors."

The men's commander, however, worries about them.

"During the heat of the battle the adrenaline is such you don't really think about it," says Capt. Brandon Payne, 28. "Once that adrenaline wears off, though, it gets tough. Some kids, it rolls right off their backs. Some, it's like they break down a little more each day."

Payne is as conflicted as his troops about making sense of war. Reconciling duty with ethics, he says, seems more complicated in Iraq.

"I'm a Christian. I feel I'm saving my soldiers' lives by destroying as many enemy as I can. But at the end of each day, I pray to God. I worry about my soul," he says.

"Every time a door slams, I flinch. I'm hoping it will just go away when I get home."

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Hourly Pay in U.S. Not Keeping Pace With Price Rises

July 18, 2004

The amount of money workers receive in their paychecks is failing to keep up with inflation. Though wages should recover if businesses continue to hire, three years of job losses have left a large worker surplus.

"There's too much slack in the labor market to generate any pressure on wage growth,'' said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research institution based in Washington. "We are going to need a much lower unemployment rate.'' He noted that at 5.6 percent, the national unemployment rate is still back at the same level as at the end of the recession in November 2001.

Even though the economy has been adding hundreds of thousands of jobs almost every month this year, stagnant wages could put a dent in the prospects for economic growth, some economists say. If incomes continue to lag behind the increase in prices, it may hinder the ability of ordinary workers to spend money at a healthy clip, undermining one of the pillars of the expansion so far.

Declining wages are likely to play a prominent role in the current presidential campaign. Growing employment has lifted President Bush's job approval ratings on the economy of late. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, in mid-July, 42 percent of those polled approved of the president's handling of the economy, up from 38 percent in mid-March.

Yet Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, is pointing to lackluster wages as a telling weakness in the administration's economic track record. ``Americans feel squeezed between prices that are rising and incomes that are not,'' Mark Mellman, a pollster for the campaign, said in a memorandum last month.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that hourly earnings of production workers - nonmanagement workers ranging from nurses and teachers to hamburger flippers and assembly-line workers - fell 1.1 percent in June, after accounting for inflation. The June drop, the steepest decline since the depths of recession in mid-1991, came after a 0.8 percent fall in real hourly earnings in May.

Coming on top of a 12-minute drop in the average workweek, the decline in the hourly rate last month cut deeply into workers' pay. In June, production workers took home $525.84 a week, on average. After accounting for inflation, this is about $8 less than they were pocketing last January, and is the lowest level of weekly pay since October 2001.

On its own, the decline in workers' wages is unlikely to derail the recovery. Though they account for some 80 percent of the work force, they contribute much less to spending. Mark M. Zandi, chief economist at, a research firm, noted that households in the bottom half of income distribution account for only one-third of consumer spending.

Nonetheless, coming after the bonanza of the second half of the 1990's, the first period of sustained real wage growth since the 1970's, the current slide in earnings is a big blow for the lower middle class. Moreover, the absence of lower income households could also weigh on overall economic growth - putting a lid on the mass market and skewing consumption toward high-end products.

"There's a bit of a dichotomy," said Ethan S. Harris, chief economist at Lehman Brothers. "Joe Six-Pack is under a lot of pressure. He got a lousy raise; he's paying more for gasoline and milk. He's not doing that great. But proprietors' income is up. Profits are up. Home values are up. Middle-income and upper-income people are looking pretty good."

Tales of tight budgets at the bottom are springing up across the country. "I haven't had a salary increase in two years, but the cost of living is going up," said Eric Lambert, 42, a father of three who earns $13 an hour as a security guard at 660 Madison Ave. in Manhattan.

Silvia Vides, 43, who earns $11 an hour in a union job as a housekeeper at the Universal City Sheraton hotel in Los Angeles, said, "Sometimes I don't know how I pay the bills and food and rent." She has cut back on all nonessential expenditures and she is four months behind on payments on $4,000 in credit-card debt.

Their woes are a product of supply and demand for labor. From 1996 through 2000 when employers were hiring hand over fist, real hourly wages of ordinary workers rose by 7.5 percent. Those for leisure and hospitality workers rose 9.6 percent, and retail workers' climbed 8.9 percent. The raises continued even as the economy slipped into recession in 2001 and businesses began to shed workers.

From 2001 to 2003, 2.4 million jobs were eliminated, as businesses sharply reduced their work forces, refusing to hire back even as demand started picking up. Over a million of these jobs have been regained this year.

Yet with the lowest number of people employed as a share of the population since 1994, there is still a plentiful supply of unused laborers looking for jobs.

As the rise in energy prices in the earlier months of this year led to rising inflation, pushing prices in June up 3.2 percent from the same month of last year, the lackluster job market has left workers in a weak position to demand more money.

"Since last November, we've had a pickup in hiring and a pickup in hours worked in virtually all of our businesses," said David Pittaway, a senior managing director at Castle Harlan, an equity investment company that owns everything from Burger King franchises to a shipping company.

But there is clearly still a lot of slack. When Castle Harlan advertised in the newspapers to fill 70 to 80 positions at a Morton's restaurant it opened in early July in White Plains, 600 to 700 people showed up.

Ms. Vides in California ticks off the items of a rising cost of living. She pays $850 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Panorama City, $25 more a month than last year. The cost of a bus pass rose $10, to $45 a month. The electricity bill is much higher and food costs more. "I've got to do miracles with my salary," she said.

So Ms. Vides said she was outraged that the hotels negotiating a new contract with her union were offering annual raises of 40 cents to 45 cents an hour each year for the next five years. The raise in 2004 would be about 4 percent, just enough to keep up with the 4 percent rise in prices in Los Angeles over the last year. "This is miserly," said Ms. Vides, who said the union wants $1.25 this year and $1.50 next.

Colleen Kareti, president of the Los Angeles hotel employers' council, which represents the hotels, argued that negotiations had not yet gotten down to bargaining over wages. But she pointed out that times are hard for the hotel business, too. "It's been pretty bad for the last three years. We're nowhere near the levels of business where we were in 1998 through 2000," Ms. Kareti said.

Some economists warn that if wages remain depressed for a long time they may end up weighing on the economy. "The recovery will likely continue on despite the travails of lower-income households, but it cannot flourish," Mr. Zandi said.

So far, spending has been fueled mostly by debt, as consumers took advantage of bedrock-low interest rates to whip out their credit cards and refinance their mortgages. But as interest rates rise to keep inflation in check, continued growth in consumer spending will depend more on jobs and wages.

Spending is still holding up, led by strong corporate profits as well as higher salaries and bonuses at the upper end of the income distribution. But the lagging earnings at the bottom end are making for a somewhat lopsided expansion.

The upper echelons of consumer spending, at places like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom department stores, are reporting gangbuster business. "I'm surprised by how well we've sold high-priced fashion at this stage," said Pete Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom's full-line stores.

But at the other end, sales at stores open at least a year at big-box discounters like Target and Wal-Mart have disappointed, while sales of used cars are declining year over year, government figures show. "We're not seeing the traffic, not even the same volumes of sales calls," said Richard Cooper, a sales manager at Jones Ford in Charleston, S.C.

Wages at the bottom should eventually recover, as businesses continue hiring to meet growing demand. The question is how fast. "As unemployment slides down, more of the benefits of growth should flow to the working class," Mr. Bernstein said. "But not until we reach truly full employment are they likely to see their earnings rise at a level closer to that of productivity."

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