Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche has penned a striking must-read examination of the 2008 death of Private Matthew Brown in Afghanistan and the widening yet overlooked phenomenon of military suicides and murder in combat zones:
On the morning of May 11, 2008, a U.S. Army private second class named Matthew Warren Brown died of a single gunshot wound to the head while manning a watchtower at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Brown was 20 years old. He was a skinny, all-American kid, a bit aimless but affable and unassuming. He was a good guy. You could see it in his face. At his funeral back home in Pennsylvania, some 200 people showed up.
In the aftermath of Brown’s death, army investigators created files about the circumstances. The bullet that killed him was fired from his own weapon, an M4 carbine. He was working the six A.M. shift, alone in the watchtower by the fortified main gate to the base. The tower was known as the Gun Tower.
Suicide in the CZ
Many civilians perceive the US military as a highly efficient machine in the combat zone, but the confusion and communication mishaps that followed Matt Brown’s apparent suicide reflects the disorganization and dysfunction many veterans experienced in theater.
Soon after [Brown] began his shift, the sergeant of the guard—the man responsible for the soldiers manning the towers and gates—tried to raise him on the radio. Only after the third attempt did Brown respond intelligibly. The sergeant went to the chow hall to assemble breakfast plates for his crew, then drove to the Gun Tower, arriving around 6:25 A.M. He grabbed a Gatorade and Brown’s breakfast, and shouted up the staircase that he was coming. He heard nothing in response.
When he got to the top, he found Brown seated on a high bench at an elevated gun table, but slumped over and leaning against the wall and Plexiglas window to his left. At first he thought Brown was sleeping. Then he thought Brown had a bloody nose. Then he saw blood and brain matter on the ground. He set the food and Gatorade on the table. He tapped Brown as if to wake him, and felt his neck for a pulse. Now he saw blood and brain matter on the wall and ceiling. Brown was still alive. He was breathing shallowly and making a gurgling noise. His weapon was standing on the floor, muzzle up, with the strap loosely around his left leg. A bullet casing lay nearby.
The sergeant was not an investigator, expected to withhold judgment. He assumed the obvious—that Brown had shot himself. He radioed to the base office and the medical team, but got no response from either. Finally he got through to some civilian security contractors working for a company called Cobra. He told them there was an emergency in the Gun Tower, and asked them to send help. By now, Brown had stopped breathing. A man from Cobra soon appeared, felt him for a pulse, and said, “Yeah, he’s dead.” A few minutes later a doctor arrived and made the finding formal.
The Army’s slow mobilization to investigate Brown’s death also reflects the bureaucratic indifference and inefficiency many service members experienced during and after their time in military. It also reflects the military’s lack of urgency when it comes to investigating suicides in combat zones.
Far to the west, at the Bagram air base, the army’s Criminal Investigative Division, the C.I.D., promised to send investigators. Meanwhile, all sorts of people milled around in the Gun Tower, disturbing the scene and contaminating evidence. The sole person there with knowledge of normal procedure in such circumstances, a National Guard lieutenant named Brad Faust, who in civilian life was a Virginia police officer, tried to get people to move away from the scene. But he had no authority over the situation, and grew so frustrated that he left to interview soldiers nearby. By noon, when word came that the C.I.D. investigators had not yet boarded a helicopter in Bagram, Brown was placed into a rubberized body bag, carried down the stairs, loaded into an ambulance, and driven to the coolness of the women’s shower room in the inner FOB, where he lay at rest. Guards were placed outside.
CID never examined Brown’s body, and there’s little evidence in the article that they formally examined the scene of his suicide. In fact, an autopsy of wasn’t conducted until his body arrived in Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Why? The answers complicated. Part of it is organizational inefficiency, but a widespread belief that suicide is a personal failing not worth and immediate examination is part of it. This soldier clearly committed suicide, Army commanders seem to have thought, what is there left to investigate?
The Over-Medicated War Fighter
The results of the autopsy also point to yet another much hated medical practice many veterans experienced or witnessed while at war: over-medication and rapid redeployment. Coroner’s found that “Brown had enough of the sedative Valium in his system to render him incapable of coherent action.” When I was deployed to Iraq in 2004-5, I stopped being able to sleep about five months into my deployment. The doctors at the Troop Medical Center (TMC) placed me on a cycle of heavy doses of antidepressants, sleep medication, and uppers before sending me back to the field.
I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to many, many veterans who experienced the same treatment. Can’t sleep? Give him Ambien, Trazodone, and Modafinil. Can’t stay awake? Give her Ambien, Fluoxetine, and uppers. Got a jump sargent in your platoon? Get him a cocktail of Ambien, Valium, and Rip It. Can’t get a prescription? A can of fresh snus can get you whatever you need, brother! But whatever you do, don’t pull that soldier, sailor, or Marine off the line.
Most people have no idea how bad the military’s mental health crisis has gotten. The public tends to focus only on suicides and trauma among veterans, but psychiatric suffering of active duty personnel seems to keep growing unnoticed by most. Here’s the Military Times on the issue:
At least one in six service members is on some form of psychiatric drug.
And many troops are taking more than one kind, mixing several pills in daily “cocktails” — for example, an antidepressant with an antipsychotic to prevent nightmares, plus an anti-epileptic to reduce headaches — despite minimal clinical research testing such combinations.
The drugs come with serious side effects: They can impair motor skills, reduce reaction times and generally make a war fighter less effective. Some double the risk for suicide, prompting doctors — and Congress — to question whether these drugs are connected to the rising rate of military suicides.
“It’s really a large-scale experiment. We are experimenting with changing people’s cognition and behavior,” said Dr. Grace Jackson, a former Navy psychiatrist.
A Military Times investigation of electronic records obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency shows DLA spent $1.1 billion on common psychiatric and pain medications from 2001 to 2009. It also shows that use of psychiatric medications has increased dramatically — about 76 percent overall, with some drug types more than doubling — since the start of the current wars.
Why are armed forces leading this research? Because they feel the greatest urgency. For an airline or freight company, failure to complete a flight means financial losses. For an air force, it means casualties. In civilian life, you can schedule reliable overnight rest or naps. In war, you can’t. Maybe you’re alone in a cockpit. Maybe you’re on a 12-hour mission requiring constant vigilance. Nobody’s around to take the next shift. Even if somebody were, how are you supposed to sleep in the chaos of combat?
Once we head down this road, there’s no turning back. With multiple countries investigating military modafinil, staying awake becomes an arms race. A report by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory explains why: “Forcing our enemies to perform continuously without the benefit of sufficient daily sleep is a very effective weapon.” To win this war of exhaustion, we must “manage fatigue among ourselves.” We must drug our troops to outlast yours. You, in turn, must drug your troops to keep up. On the battlefield of the future, there is no sleep but death.
The banality of over-medication and “off-label” prescription drug use even comes up in Langewiesche’s account of how Private Brown’s comrades reacted to his death:
The belief that Brown had killed himself was widely shared in Asadabad, even though not a single soldier who gave a statement after his death was aware of any recent difficulties he may have had. Those who knew him best thought of him as a goofy kid, quiet around his superiors, but relaxed and funny among his peers, invigorated by a recent home leave, excited by a subsequent promotion, and looking forward to the successful conclusion of his army service after a few short years. His drug use, if they were being honest, was not exceptional. Valium was a way to get through the days. They were surprised that Brown had killed himself. They attributed it to the unknowable in life, and moved on.
Here’s the most striking part of Vanity Fair’s article—Matthew Brown may have been murdered by men in his company.
Sandra Evans, Brown’s mother, wasn’t willing to move on. Evans recalled that her son had told her that he didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan when he was home on leave. He complained that one of his sergeants was a thug who was running a drug ring selling prescription narcotics from Pakistan to American soldiers. Brown confessed to her that he had started working for the sergeant as a drug mule, and he feared for his life because the NCO threatened the private after he said he wanted out. The young soldier died two weeks after returning to Afghanistan.
When Evans told her son’s story to the CID agents who visited her, they ignored her and “the army disposed of the case expediently, without following up on many key questions.” The scale of negligence related to homicide investigations in the military is staggering.
Evans did not know it at the time, but she had company. Hundreds of other non-combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ruled to be suicides, leaving some families feeling isolated, powerless, and angry. Like Evans, they wonder whether other factors were at play, and whether other causes of death might have merited consideration. The common denominator is the families’ bewilderment: the suicides took place without any warning signs, sudden self-destructive acts that could not have been foreseen and are not explained by the official findings. The precise numbers are unknowable. Some of the suicides must indeed have been authentic, despite what the families think. Suicide, not combat, is the leading cause of death among U.S. soldiers. And proving the C.I.D. wrong would require access to closely held files and expensive, painstaking research. Most military families lack the resources to challenge the official findings. But the numbers we do know suggest that army investigators are mishandling noncombat deaths in war zones, adding to the anguish of families whose loved ones died while serving their country. Since 2001, the U.S. military appears to have prosecuted only five soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq for the murder of fellow soldiers. During the same period, it has ruled the deaths of 362 soldiers to be suicides. That disparity, by itself, seems to indicate that something is amiss. A recent study in Military Medicine found that the suicide rate among U.S. civilians, adjusted for age and gender, is roughly comparable to that of soldiers. Yet among civilians, the suicide rate is only 2.5 times higher than the murder rate. Among soldiers in combat zones, if the military is to be believed, it is roughly 70 times higher.
We rightfully spend a lot of time and resources addressing suicides among active duty personnel and veterans, but when was the last time you thought much about the military’s staggering murder rate? I’d guess never. The article continues with an account of the events immediately leading to Private Brown’s death. It’s well worth your time.
After eighteen years of constant warfare and an accelerating OPTEMPO (the rate of military actions or missions) has wreaked havoc on the lives of the men and women our nation has sent to war. Whether or not war is a natural thing is debatable, but the fact that the United States is asking its service members to do unnatural things in the name of national security and international prestige is unquestionable.
Many of our neighbors have adopted a flattened view of veterans active duty personnel—they’re either infallible public servants, or corrupted and traumatized victims. Conservatives like to blame the civil-military divide for the public’s misconceptions about the people who fight our wars, but I blame war itself.
Constant warfare has poisoned our culture with an unhealthy obsession with authority figures, namely police officers, military personnel, and veterans. Our popular celebrates an uncomplicated view of who these people are, where they come from, and what the experience in the war zone. Even the most morally dubious figures like Chris Kyle (who claimed to have spent days after Hurricane Katrina sniping looters from the top of the SuperDome) are portrayed as men without agency. You wouldn’t understand what these men go through in battle, the Forever War culture tells us, morality has no place in the places our war fighters live.
But here’s the thing . . . it does. Veterans and military personnel are not about criticism. Militaries reflect the societies that produce them, so if we want to think critically about the state of our country, we need to think critically about the men and women of our armed forces.
We’d do better for our military and our country if we paid more attention to those who bore the battle, warts and all. Some fight valiantly, others skulk away from even the most insignificant inconveniences. Some will share their last drop of water with their buddy, others will happily sell their comrades the heroine that will eventually destroy them.
Ardant du Picq once said, “The man is the first weapon of battle. Let us study the soldier, for it is he who brings reality to it.” Our country would be wise to follow his advice.