Help me get home
Army Reserve members facing imminent deployment to Afghanistan are publicly charging that their company is not properly trained or mentally fit for battle. Several members of the Indiana-based 656th Transportation Company, which is due to activate August 22nd, are requesting a Congressional inquiry into the unit's lack of readiness. Alejandro Villatoro, a sergeant in the company, is amongst those coming forward.
Sergeant Villatoro says, "The main reason I am doing this is that I want people to know the lack of training and education our soldiers been receiving, and the focus on the mission is just not adequate to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. All I am asking is more time to reevaluate the training and mental health of these soldiers before sending them into war."
At risk to themselves, these soldiers are going public with firsthand experiences of failures in military training, mental healthcare, and leadership, which many veterans charge are problems endemic to the military. This comes as the Afghanistan War falls under increased scrutiny in the wake of the Wikileaked "War Logs" information.
Untrained and Unsupported
Three members of this company, Sgt. Villatoro and two reservists who wish to remain anonymous (referred to here as Private First Class A and Specialist B), have come forward to expose a crisis.
They tell of inadequate mental healthcare, scant and inappropriate training, and incompetent leadership distrusted by the rank and file.
Troops set to deploy to Afghanistan are given only a rudimentary briefing on Iraq--not Afghanistan. This transportation company has not even been trained on the vehicles and weapons their assignment depends upon, according to these servicemembers. Some mentally ill soldiers are able to keep their diagnoses secret from the military, which is not screening before deployment, while those with known mental illnesses are deployed regardless.
The 656th has been assigned to convoy security operations in Afghanistan. Yet, only 10% of its soldiers qualified on the .50 caliber guns that will be their primary weapon. Most have not learned to operate the heavy Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAPs) vehicles they will be driving in Afghanistan, and Villatoro fears a repeat of his experience invading Iraq in 2003, with gun truck drivers who had never learned to drive a stick shift.
The company's mandatory trainings have been cut from the required 40 hours down to two-hour PowerPoint presentations. Officers told the soldiers that funding cuts were the reason that their recent two-week training at Indiana's Camp Atterbury, scheduled to be run by a privately contracted company, was reduced to some hastily improvised sessions with almost none of the equipment necessary for training.
"We're part-time soldiers, we only train once a month, and when we do actually have trainings that are supposed to last any significant amount of time, we don't do anything that seems useful." says Private A, a 21 year-old reservist.
Training inadequacies go beyond the issue of equipment. "Most of the things we're being taught are being applied specifically from Iraq and from Iraq vets. Afghanistan is a whole different ballgame. The only thing that's the same is IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. The language, the landscape, the situation... everything is different" says Private A.
While U.S. and European diplomats have recently admitted they are floundering in the immensely complex social and political landscape of Afghanistan, Private A describes the level of preparation his company was offered: a single cultural awareness class focused, again, on Iraq rather than Afghanistan. "Everything they mentioned pertained to Iraq, so people were asking, 'Well, in Afghanistan, what's this like?' And they'd say, well, we can't really tell you. Or just make up facts. It's not making me feel any more comfortable about my first time deploying."
"I Fear that My Chain of Command Will Fail Me"
The company has experienced numerous changes in leadership, including the transfer of their first sergeant after the disastrous Camp Atterbury training, where morale plummeted to a new low and one servicemember attempted suicide. Months of changing leadership have created insecurity and instability for members of the company, who have not had time to train together or build trust with the leadership they'll be serving under in Afghanistan.
Even some top military brass acknowledge that poor mental health in the ranks is compounded by failures of leadership. Suicide is at "crisis level" in the military, declared Navy Adm. Mike Mullen in an Aug. 2nd speech to the National Guard Family Program Volunteer Workshop in New Orleans. Mullen said, "A big part of the solution is tied to leadership and how we do the training."
"Without stable enlisted leadership, unit commanders are unable to properly assess the training, mental health, and personal needs of their troops or effectively implement their training plans. This leaves soldiers vulnerable to inadequate training and pre-deployment preparation which could lead to disastrous outcomes on the battlefield." wrote Iraq War veteran Aaron Hughes, in a July letter on behalf of the 656th arguing to delay deployment.
Specialist B, a 20 year-old from Indiana, says "I would like to believe that I'm fully prepared to go to war, but that is just not the case. I don't know what my mission will be, I feel as if I have to defend my very close battle buddies and not my chain of command. I fear that my chain of command will fail me in the ultimate end and as a result my life will be on the line, or one of my buddies' lives will pay the price for the lack of leadership."
Two weeks out from their activation date, Sgt Villatoro explains "It's just not possible to be sufficiently trained in this time frame, let alone broadly enough for not knowing what our mission will be."
"It just doesn't make sense. And it's dangerous. I just don't understand why they'd put us in that much danger, to the point where it doesn't make sense cause we're unprepared for anything." says Private A.
Clearly, the 656th cannot be prepared to successfully complete a mission it has not been trained for. But the question of inadequate training cannot be divorced from context. In every branch of the military, servicemembers continue to question the legitimacy of the mission, and whether they can in good conscience participate in these projects.
Sgt. Villatoro says, "That's the part I struggle with, that we don't have to do this. It's kind of hard to convince a soldier that they do have a choice. That the mission we were given, we believe it's not effective.
"Sit down and look at the effectiveness of trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Sending 30,000 more soldiers with weapons doesn't make sense to me. We don't know anything about the culture, diplomacy; they train us on how to conduct traffic checkpoints."
These servicemembers also express concern about the effects on the Afghan people of deploying unprepared soldiers, untrained on their weaponry and equipment, and many in need of mental health support.
"What I'm afraid is that the rules of engagement might go out the window. That's what happened when I went [to Iraq], they told us that as soon as you feel threatened you're able to shoot. I'm afraid soldiers are going to forget the rules of engagement, go by their emotions, their anger and frustration, and take matters into their own hands." says Sgt. Villatoro.
Unfit for Deployment
Lack of training on guns and vehicles makes soldiers a danger to themselves as well as others. The 656th will be operating top-heavy MRAP vehicles on Afghanistan's difficult terrain, without having practiced driving these rollover-prone trucks even on Indiana's flat roads.
"Whether we run off the road and kill somebody, or it's somebody who snaps... If you don't get mental help, that's what is probably going to happen. And when you don't have prepared soldiers, you're going to have accidents," says Private A.
Many soldiers diagnosed with a mental illness by a civilian doctor don't report their diagnosis to the Army. They fear that they will be either immediately discharged, or deployed without treatment and possibly barred from carrying weapons. Private A was diagnosed as bipolar 3 years ago and has kept this information secret.
"Mental health screening is a little embarrassing on the Army's part-- the fact that they haven't done it," says Private A. "There are several people here who I know of including myself with a diagnosed mental illness and the Army hasn't caught it or done anything about it."
During the Camp Atterbury training, a young servicemember slit his wrists with a number of others present. The military's minimal response didn't include mental health screening for the witnesses, the friends who intervened in the suicide attempt, or other company members shaken by the incident. Villatoro explains that the only mental health screening offered to this unit has been an anonymous online survey.
"The lack of screening could be a good thing to keep our numbers up as a unit," says Private A, who has learned to manage his stability without medication over the last two years, after losing health insurance. "But God forbid something happens to those people or for some reason they can't get medication over there. That could be the last time they see home. Any of those people could turn a gun on us or themselves."
The experiences of these servicemembers reflect the escalating mental health crisis in the military, with rising deployments and redeployments of soldiers suffering from trauma, mental illnesses, and physical wounds. A third of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report mental problems, according to a study by the RAND corporation. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual assault (MST), depression and anxiety disorders have carved holes in the ranks.
Army suicide attempts peaked this past June. The Army reports that in the last year, 239 soldiers killed themselves, (including 160 on active duty) and 1,713 people attempted suicide. Studies that include veterans in their statistic show even more horrifying numbers, like a CBS News study of state-by-state data in 2007 that revealed about 120 veteran suicides a week. The military does not acknowledge responsibility for many post-service suicides by veterans, who are two to four times more likely to commit suicide than civilians of the same age.
"It's not enough for Obama to say that it's not weak to ask for help, " says Maggie Martin, an organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War who works on issues of stopping deployment of soldiers with trauma and mental health needs. "We have to create a community where people know that. What the 656th is doing, in trying to delay the deployment and call attention to these issues-- that is really important in helping soldiers know that they have to stand up for themselves and let people know what's happening,"
Soldiers Fill the Leadership Gap
Alejandro Villatoro enlisted as a high school senior in 2000 for economic reasons. Six months ago, he told his command he was applying for conscientious objector status. He avoided thinking about his participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 until entering non-commissioned officer training three years later.
"As a leader, I wanted to take initiative and learn more about the war...It took me about two years to learn and decide what we were doing was ineffective and immoral."
When Sgt. Villatoro learned that his unit was slated to deploy to Afghanistan this fall, he decided to drop the conscientious objector application to go through deployment with his soldiers. "I wanted to be with them to educate them about the wars, what's worth fighting for, what it really is to be a soldier."
"They know my situation, that I wanted to get out and am only doing this for them" says Sgt. Villatoro. In conversations with soldiers in his unit, Villatoro found that many soldiers shared these concerns, and some felt ready to risk speaking out. Even more have indicated their agreement through informal surveys made by Villatoro, but stay quiet for fear of retribution.
Specialist B says "I have too many concerns with the 656th deploying to Afghanistan," echoing the basic sentiment of many others in the company. Private A says "If we can't even get little stuff like trainings scheduled, how are we supposed to nail down a complex mission in Afghanistan?"
Others appear comfortable or even enthusiastic about deployment. Villatoro says, "There's a lack of knowledge; the motivation is money or medals, coming back with ribbons and hoping to have war stories. It's not about the Afghan people, or thinking this will end the war. They don't think that's going to happen."
"You have a bunch of people who want to go just for the experience and for the money. I think that a lot of it is the money. That's the only thing that's keeping me from saying OK, thanks and goodbye; there's not a lot of jobs out there," says Private A, who is from a small farming town and enlisted at 17.
"The only thing that's making me go is that I need the money. When I get back, I want to start school again and didn't have money to do that before. That's essentially the only thing that's keeping me there."
Sgt. Villatoro says he feels a sense of responsibility to help younger soldiers to recognize where they may need more experience to understand of their own lack of preparation.
"You can ask some of these soldiers if they're satisfied with the training so far, and they'll say yes. But you ask, Is it sufficient for you to conduct a mission in Afghanistan? That's where the confusion sets in."
After his own experiences in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Sgt. Villatoro names a key fear of sending out young, unprepared soldiers, many on their first deployment, without clarity about what they are expected to do and how they're going to survive.
"As a young soldier, there's a lot of insecurity," he says. "You're scared, you're not going to remember the rules of engagement or what you're supposed to do. You just want to get through the firefight."
Private A sums it up: "It just doesn't make sense to send an unprepared soldier into battle. It's like brushing your teeth without toothpaste."
Fending For Themselves
After his command denied him an audience (and declined to comment for this article), Sgt. Villatoro and an increasing number of servicemembers from the 656th are looking to elected officials for assistance. Villatoro visited the office of Chicago's Representative Luis Gutierrez to underline the need for soldiers to be properly trained and mentally fit before deploying; Gutierrez has acknowledged the severity of these concerns and is taking the matter under advisement. He was accompanied by allies including veterans of the Navy, Marines, Army and Illinois National Guard, representing service in Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Sgt Villatoro and several soldiers from his unit met last week to discuss the matter with Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), an advocate for mental healthcare for soldiers and veterans. Durbin's office offered to forward a letter from Sgt Villatoro to the military liason in Congress. Recently, Sgt. Villatoro filed an official request with his office to open a Congressional inquiry into the 656th's unfitness for deployment.
With only a couple weeks left before their activation date, these soldiers are taking multiple courses of action to address this situation. On why he decided to speak out, Private A says, "I just want future soldiers to realize you have to take this stuff into your own hands."
More and more soldiers are stepping up to join Sgt. Villatoro in speaking up about the concealed chaos of the 656th. Their perspectives, politics and hopes span a wide range; they unify behind lack of faith in their company's preparation and leadership, and a common belief that the Afghanistan war is only getting worse.
An Unwinnable Mission
"I ask soldiers: what do you hope, do you really think this last push will end this war? A lot of them say no, because they know they're not there to help the Afghan people." says Sgt. Villatoro.
Private A says "No, absolutely not. There's no reason we're even there. I'm going overseas to fight people where I have no idea that they did anything wrong. We're not even fighting al-Qaeda, we're just over there picking a fight, driving around and seeing who shoots at us, then shooting them. I don't even understand the reason we're over there."
"The mission as a whole in Afghanistan has lost its purpose," says Specialist B. "The government can say whatever and do whatever and get away with it, with very little justice to the American people."
Over 150 soldiers have publicly refused orders or deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. There is precedent for a unit to successfully delay its deployment, as another National Guard unit and family members managed to do in 2007. Servicemembers, families, allies, and groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War organize resistance both publicly and under the radar. The Under the Hood G.I. Coffeehouse in Killeen, TX held a march to publicize opposition to the deployment of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rdACR) from Fort Hood, Texas, scheduled for August. Soldiers, military families and civilian organizers demanded an end to the occupations, cancellation of this deployment, and for an end to the 3rd ACR's policy of deploying traumatized soldiers.
"There is a strong history in this country of G.I.s taking a stand, confronting and exposing unjust and illegal military practices," says Sarah Lazare, an Illinois-based organizer with the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, a group of non-veterans supporting and collaborating with servicemembers and veterans who resist orders and wars they view as unjust and illegal. "By courageously speaking out about the problems with their unit, soldiers in the 656th are strengthening the movement of service members taking stands of conscience against military actions they oppose."
Despite his principled objection to the Afghanistan War, Sgt. Villatoro is prepared to deploy with the soldiers in his charge if they are unable to delay the 656th's activation. "I ask myself why I feel so responsible. I put a lot of blame on myself because of mistakes I made as a young naïve soldier, and I don't want to do it again or see other young soldiers make those mistakes."
Sgt. Villatoro says, "This war has never ended for me. I feel bad a lot about the soldiers, how they keep re-enlisting. My war, my fight will never end until every soldier is home."