A Secret War, Strange New Wounds, and Silence From the Pentagon

Dave Philipps with photographs by Matthew Callahan, The New York Times, A Secret War, Strange New Wounds, and Silence From the Pentagon. Many U.S. troops who fired vast numbers of artillery rounds against the Islamic State developed mysterious, life-shattering mental and Physical problems. But the military struggled to understand what was wrong. Sunday, 5 November 2023: “An investigation by The New York Times found that many of the troops sent to bombard the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017 returned to the United States plagued by nightmares, panic attacks, depression and, in a few cases, hallucinations. Once-reliable Marines turned unpredictable and strange. Some are now homeless. A striking number eventually died by suicide, or tried to. Interviews with more than 40 gun-crew veterans and their families in 16 states found that the military repeatedly struggled to determine what was wrong after the troops returned from Syria and Iraq. All the gun crews filled out questionnaires to screen for post-traumatic stress disorder, and took tests to detect signs of traumatic brain injuries from enemy explosions. But the crews had been miles away from the front lines when they fired their long-range cannons, and most never saw direct fighting or suffered the kinds of combat injuries that the tests were designed to look for. A few gun-crew members were eventually given diagnoses of P.T.S.D., but to the crews that didn’t make much sense. They hadn’t, in most cases, even seen the enemy. The only thing remarkable about their deployments was the sheer number of artillery rounds they had fired. The United States had made a strategic decision to avoid sending large numbers of ground troops to fight the Islamic State, and instead relied on airstrikes and a handful of powerful artillery batteries to, as one retired general said at the time, ‘pound the bejesus out of them.’ The strategy worked: Islamic State positions were all but eradicated, and hardly any American troops were killed. But it meant that a small number of troops had to fire tens of thousands of high-explosive shells — far more rounds per crew member, experts say, than any American artillery battery had fired at least since the Vietnam War. Military guidelines say that firing all those rounds is safe. What happened to the crews suggests that those guidelines were wrong. The cannon blasts were strong enough to hurl a 100-pound round 15 miles, and each unleashed a shock wave that shot through the crew members’ bodies, vibrating bone, punching lungs and hearts, and whipping at cruise-missile speeds through the most delicate organ of all, the brain.”