A soldier carries a folded American flag at a military funeral. [Getty Images]
More than 20 million US military veterans are currently living in the US. After years of serving their country and waging war overseas, many of them struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), homelessness and addiction.
Adrian Bonenberger is one of them. This is his story in his own words.
I don’t go out to parties very much anymore. I can’t remember the last time I was at a party where there was lots of alcohol or drugs, because I know for a fact using either of them would be bad for me. Not because they are illegal, necessarily, but because it wouldn’t be good for me. They would put me in a bad place.
I was never medicated for post-traumatic stress disorder, but I did go through a lot of therapy. I still go back occasionally if I’m in a bad place.
I joined the US army in 2005 and served until 2012. I went from second lieutenant to first lieutenant and then from first lieutenant to captain.
We had never really seen the US [military] go into a place long term. The governing understanding of war was that we’d gotten involved in Vietnam, we learned that was a mistake and we were going to avoid situations like that.
So I’d seen the US go into a foreign country for a couple of weeks or a month or a couple of months, and then the United Nations (UN) or some international peacekeeping body would take over and we would not be there anymore.
Until George W Bush was re-elected, it seemed that would probably be what was happening in Iraq. If Kerry was elected he would get us out of Iraq. When Bush was re-elected, however, we were seeing this new, multi-generational, long-term warfare commitment.
I’m an American citizen and I voted for this democracy, so it felt to me that I needed to participate in whatever it was the country was doing – right or wrong. On an individual level, participating in a democracy that was under threat seemed like the right thing to do.
I was deployed twice to Afghanistan on combat tours as a result of my decision to enlist.
‘The war was illegal‘
Is there a purposeful way to die in war?
I guess. Maybe you die to hold off the enemy with a machine gun and grenade, heroically. Maybe there’s a way you die that’s full of purpose, when you give the aircraft time to knock out the enemy, for example.
You could probably construct a scenario where it is plausible to say that this person’s death is meaningful.
I think about the guys who died in Iraq for – as far as I could tell – no reason. The war was illegal. For anything that happened in Iraq, there is no good reason that it happened, so it was for nothing.
With Afghanistan, it was a little bit different.
At least, when I was there, the thinking was that this is a nation-building mission. There is some type of logic behind it. It wasn’t Iraq, it wasn’t illegal. There was something about Afghanistan – a feeling that they had come after us. They had refused to give bin Laden back. So it felt like the Taliban had asked for it.
A lot of money was being spent on Afghanistan. But very little has changed there, and those things that have changed seem disturbing.
It’s hard looking at Afghanistan and Iraq from the perspective of today and saying that it was necessary. All of the horrible things that were a direct result of Iraq, I don’t think any of this was necessary.
‘You have to make choices that are incompatible with civilisation’
When it came to transitioning to the civilian world, I think that I had the intuitive sense that it could take more time. I went back to school. I took a lot of time and space to read and talk to people.
Even so, I apologised to teachers and former classmates all the time about how I was a jerk in class.
That manifested in a way not unlike road rage, where somebody would say something and I would disagree with it. Disagreeing or dialogue in an academic setting could be good, but the way that I would do it would be very belligerent.
When you’re on the kind of deployment I was, you have to kind of live like an animal and make choices that are totally incompatible with civilisation. You’re trying to kill people.
You can’t really think that way and live that way when you are back in civilisation. You can’t be a good member of society without a lot of deliberate, “no, don’t say that; no, you can’t think that.”
Originally, I was resistant to getting help from the department of veteran affairs (VA), so I paid out of pocket to go to different therapists. I didn’t get great quality care, not because these people weren’t effective at their jobs, but because it just wasn’t their speciality.
When I did eventually go through the VA, I actually got excellent care in the two places where I spent most of my time. They were West Haven Veterans Affairs and the Bronx Veterans Affairs.
I’ve heard horrible stories about veteran care from other veterans, who really just did not get supported when they went into the VA. I think a lot depends on where those things are. The West Haven VA is also a teaching hospital, essentially, for Yale medical school. You can imagine the high quality of doctors.
I feel very lucky that I had a good experience. I would say most of the guys that I know did not have a good experience. I was very fortunate.
When you’re on the kind of deployment I was on, you have to kind of live like an animal and make choices that are totally incompatible with civilisation. You’re trying to kill people. You can’t really think that way and live that way when you are back in civilisation.
‘America’s a quietly sad place to be’
I don’t miss serving, but there are things about that life in the military that were attractive. The comradeship, the sense of community.
Those are good things, but the war was absolutely not necessary to make those things happen. If you think through what it was actually like, why you’re having that camaraderie in a 130-degree hellhole with people shooting at you. No.
When people say that, I always tell them: “Let’s talk through that day again. Let’s talk about that mission. You talk about the trip, you want to be back there? No, no you don’t”.
There’s no single thing that we could do to immediately improve the conditions of life in the world, other than not having more wars. But it doesn’t look like they’re going away, unfortunately. It looks like the war business is booming.
America’s kind of a quietly sad place to be. The context is not conducive to joyfulness unless you happen to have a lot of money.