As A US Marine, Kris Goldsmith Went To Iraq Believing In The Mission. He Came Back Disillusioned And Suicidal. What Went Wrong?

You always dreamed of joining the army. Do you come from a military family?

“No. My father wasn't in the military, however my grandfather and a couple of people in that generation had served in World War 2. Joining the military was a dream for me since I had been a kid, mainly because I had so much respect for anybody that wore a uniform in my country, whether it be a policeman, fireman or a member of the military. I just saw somebody who was willing to put their life on the line to help other people as the most honourable thing you could do in modern-day life.”

You enlisted during a time of war. Did anyone try to persuade you to not join?

“Well my friends and family all didn't want me to go away. My father had told me that he lost a lot of friends in Vietnam and that all of his friends who were so gung-ho to join the military came back extremely disillusioned, disappointed, in some cases broken because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], or what they're now calling 'battle fatigue'. I dismissed that by just saying this is different, this is Afghanistan, this is Iraq, this is the Taliban, this is al-Qaeda, this is Sadaam, this is different from Vietnam: we're going there with purpose. It wouldn't be until years later where my view of that would be totally turned upside down.”

What were your expectations when you went out to Iraq?

“When I joined the army, I thought Afghanistan was the big issue. I thought Iraq was going to be a quick war, that by the time I got out of basic training Iraq would be done with. That turned out not to be the case. In fact when I really got into the military, it was as if everyone forgot Afghanistan even existed for quite a number of years.

“When I saw on television the initial invasion, I saw videos of Iraqis greeting Americans with flowers and thanking and hugging and crying with happiness. And then when I got to Iraq it was the polar opposite, and instead of being greeted with flowers, it was bricks and rocks and bottles of sewage and bottles of oil, and Molotov cocktails, that type of thing. Yeah, it totally turned my little world upside down. When I say little world, I mean my isolated world of being in Iraq and not being able to escape it."

Psychologically, what impact did that have on you?

“Everything I had believed in in the war, and in serving over there, got turned upside down when, instead of being greeted as a liberator, I was greeted as an occupier. It blew my mind and made me nothing but infuriated and angry at the Iraqi people, because I felt that they didn't respect, or they should have been grateful for my decision, my dedication, my sacrifice of serving there for a year of my life.” 

Did you feel, or have you subsequently felt, that you were sold a false bill of goods?

“Yeah, absolutely. When we were getting ready to deploy, we were unofficially told – I mean it's not like it came down in orders or anything – but the general consensus, the way I remember it, was that in the year 2005,  we would be the last Americans to set foot in Iraq. We thought we were going there kind of as a clean-up crew, just take out the rest of the insurgents and wrap up and go home. But when I got there, I started to see all these permanent structures being built, by KBR, Halliburton and the rest of the war-profiteering corporations. That's when I started to realise like maybe this wasn't exactly what it was all cracked up to be."

Was the search for WMD still going on at this point?

“When I got there, we were more or less told: 'Don't even bother, because we looked everywhere.' You know, while I was overseas I came home and saw a video of President Bush making a joke at this big press conference of looking under his desk and pictures of him looking under chairs, joking about how he was going to find these weapons of mass destruction somewhere. That filled me with a kind anger that I will never get over. Because to know that he would make a joke of starting a war under false pretences, that is something that I and my friends would pay dearly for, and continue to pay dearly for, almost a decade later, is something that is absolutely, absolutely absurd.”

Do you think he will ever be held to account for Iraq?

“I don't believe that George Bush will ever pay for his crime of doing what he did to our country.”

You were given a different job to the one you were trained for because there was a truce at the time. What was the purpose of the job you were assigned?

“Well the job that I was trained for was forward observer, which is the eyes of the artillery. Basically, anything you see in the movies that explode because of the guy on the radio, I was the guy on the radio. However, those things what we call 'indirect assets' – mortar, artillery – they produce massive amounts of casualties. So because of the truce, and because I was working in a heavily populated city, I was not allowed to do what I was trained to do. And I was told very early on in my deployment, 'Well either you can be another infantryman or you could find yourself useful on some other way.' So I kind of, with my command, developed a new position on the ground where I would go out with the infantry platoon, the same way as I otherwise would've, but instead of bringing rounds on to targets, I would record and document everything that we came across. No matter what the mission, my job was to report and send it up to intelligence.”

Was what you came across anything that you could be prepared for? Can you ever be prepared for the reality of war and the need to kill if necessary?

“As tough as a bunch of 18 year olds can think that they are, and as able as you may be from your training to pull your trigger and shoot at another human being, I don't think that any sort of military training could strip you of your humanity and stop you questioning what you've been a part of and wonder if you have done the right thing while you are over there.”

You suffered from PTSD. When did you start to feel that something was going wrong inside you?

“I didn't feel, I didn't acknowledge, that something was wrong, because I was in denial for years. Thinking back it's easy to say, like, 'Oh well, as soon as I came back from my first time on leave, when I was home for Thanksgiving, and some woman bumped into me in a crowd and I threw her on the ground.' You know, I should have recognised, 'Okay, this is a problem.' But it took me years before I realised my behaviour had totally changed for the worse."

And when was that? 

"When I really started to be forced to accept I had a problem was in Spring of 2007, after I had found out that I was being stop-lossed, and instead of going to college and getting out of the army, the very same week that I was contractually told I was getting out of the army, I would be deploying to Iraq for an undetermined amount of time – at least a year. I had what I thought was a heart attack and I got to the hospital, and I was checked out from head to toe, and they told me, 'There's physically nothing wrong with you, but you seem to be very stressed out.' That's when I was like, 'Well obviously I'm stressed out. My life just turned upside down and you guys expect me to deal with it.' And from that point I started trying to get treatment. I had been searching for months before that to try and get treatment and it never seemed to be available.”

What was the attitude you were coming up against as you were seeking treatment?

“Well I was trying to be very secretive about getting help because I was afraid of anyone finding out that I was looking for it. So I never really made it clear that I needed help to everyone I know, because it would have ruined my career. What I did instead was I asked my first-line supervisor, I asked some people in my command, I asked the medics where the mental health ward was, or the mental health area was, and they directed me to a system of semi-permanent trailers that was across the street from where I worked. When I went in there, the door was wide open and there were desks pushed over, and it looked like a hurricane had blown through the place. Well turns out Fort Stewart had moved their mental health area without ever putting up a sign on the front door to say where the new location was, which ended up being at the hospital – which I guess people could blame me for not knowing it was there. But my command and the medics didn't know it was there, so how was I supposed to get help without screaming bloody murder for it?”

Stop-lossing people with PTSD and re-deploying them has got to be dangerous for everyone, hasn't it?

“Well I don't know that the effects of PTSD, in my experience, would affect the mission on everyone's level. My experience of PTSD has been, outside of the alcoholism and everything, if I was still in Iraq, what it was was being hyper-alert, and that type of thing, which was all beneficial when you're in combat. However, guys that have gone through repeat deployments that I know of, have had to be shipped home from Iraq for PTSD and the fact that it's affecting their decisions and their behaviour in such a way that it does become dangerous.”

When you come back from a war situation is there a psychological dislocation that is hard to bridge?

“Yeah, when I came back from Iraq I looked at my best friends in a different way. They all seemed to be very distant from anything that I had been involved with in the military and very apathetic. Although they cared about me, they didn't really care about anything I had gone through or any of my friends. Which I think is really what I held against them, inside at least.

“Connecting with civilians was extremely difficult and it was something I was unable to do for years after getting out the military. I was either alone or I was drunk, or I was surrounded by veterans. It was the only three ways that I felt comfortable for a long time after I got out of the military.”

I watched a documentary that seemed to suggest that Vietnam veterans were helping young men like yourself coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Has that been the case in your experience?

“For me, yes, on a very personal level. There's one Vietnam vet, his name is Bill Perry, he works for Disabled American Veterans, or is a volunteer, he is a member of the organisation, he helped me to get my disability benefits, which has financially kept me on my feet. Without it I don't know where I would be today. When I left the military, I was cut out like a cancer. Once I was out, and once I had left Fort Stewart, they didn't want anything to do with me.

“I had been described anti-depressants, I had been getting treatment, and once I was out that all disappeared. Soldiers who leave the military have no support system and they kill themselves because they don't have anything else.”

Do veterans always want to be helped?

“A lot of guys, in my experience, just want to be left alone and want to forget what they've been through, and just want to ignore it. And it's not like these Vietnam vets can come up knocking on our door and say, 'Okay, you need help,' because we're going to say no.

What was your status when you left the army?

“They left me with a discharge paper that says on it I was given a general discharge under honourable conditions for a serious offence of misconduct. That serious offence was surviving a suicide attempt, because the military believe that if you try to commit suicide, you had better be successful. Otherwise we're going to strip you of your benefits and feed you to the wolves.

“Before they decided on the general discharge, they gave me an Article 15, which is a non-judicial punishment. You're not judged by anyone, it's just a punishment handed down by your boss, for two things: one, missing movement, meaning physically not getting on the plane; and two, for malingering. So, not a medical doctor, some officer, decided that he thought I was faking it, so he handed down this punishment for that. Two, I missed movement because I had attempted suicide and I was handcuffed to a gurney in the hospital. So when I said this is absolutely crazy, and I requested a court martial, as I had a right to, they threw the case out. They kept the paper work just enough so they could give me a general discharge, which would strip me of my college benefits, so that would be the big slap on the wrist in terms of punishment. Also, because I didn't have five years in the military, I couldn't protest. I couldn't appeal my discharge. So it was the cheapest and easiest and fastest way to get me out of the military.”

What does it benefit them to try and ruin someone's future in the way they appear have to done in your case?

“Well for one, most people's immediate reaction is saying, 'Well it saves a lot of money because now they won't have to pay for your college.' I don't think that my couple of thousand dollars that I would get to go to school would really affect the big machine that is the military, or the government pockets.

“The bigger thing is they wanted to make an example out of me. They wanted to discourage anybody else from acting out. They wanted to discourage anybody else from admitting they had post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental illness that wasn't, in the eyes of my command, an honourable thing to have.”

Was it difficult for you to speak out because from what I have seen online, it put you at odds with other soldiers? 

“Yes. I first started speaking out and telling my story and saying exactly why I believed the war in Iraq was more harmful than good to America, and I initially faced a lot of anger from my friends in the military. I lost a lot of friends because of my views. However, as time goes by and Iraq becomes less and less of a popular war, and a lot of guys, a lot of soldiers, a lot of veterans of all kinds are starting to recognise that PTSD is a reality that they are facing too, they start to understand why I have done the things that I have done since leaving the service and speaking out.”

You would think that PTSD would be something that people were prepared to talk about. Soldiers came back with it from Vietnam and it was even recognised in the First and Second World Wars.

“In the military there are always going to be people who are deployed a bunch of times and come home and say, 'Oh well, there's nothing wrong with me, so anybody who has PTSD is weak.' Some of those people, there may very well be nothing wrong with them. Some of these people may be in absolute denial, which is what I've seen. In my experience guys who say you're weak, blah, blah, blah, and then you look at their lives and their list of friends is very short and their list of divorces is getting very long, and you have to wonder, like, you ask the guy, 'Would your life be like this if you didn't deploy a couple of times? Would you be a raging alcoholic?' These are questions that make them very uncomfortable. I don't want to say anything bad about my fellow veterans, but that is the type of denial that is keeping the stigma of PTSD alive.”

You were a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, although I know that you have now left because you disagreed with their approach on certain issues. They tried to do a counter recruitment campaign. If an 18 year old came to you now and asked whether or not they should join the army, what would be your advice?

“Although I was a very visible member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, I had no time and agreement with their anti-recruitment propaganda. For one reason, the lack of recruitment is the reason that stop-loss was enacted and why soldiers are being held in against their contract. But two, I don't believe that people should have the option of joining the military entirely taken away. I believe that they should be well informed, which is what I try and do. I don't try to convince anyone not to join the military; I try to let them know, like, this is what you're getting into. 

"If people insist on joining the military, I try to help them choose a job that's not going to be like mine and doesn't translate to any civilian job. I would rather them get into communications, intelligence, or something that looks good on a resume. Because blowing things up, which is all I was trained to do, is not something that's very useful in the civilian world.”

You mentioned the lack of recruitment, that's also because there wasn't a draft. Do you think there should be a draft? It's argued that one reason they didn't call a draft was because they learned from Vietnam that that's the way to provoke anti-war protests.

“I absolutely agree with that statement. I believe that if America's going to have to fight a war, everyone should have to fight. It should be the rich, it should be the poor, it should be the politicians' sons, it should be everyone within the age of fighting. I think a lot of problems arise with the draft of people not being properly trained to fight and everything like that. But I think they could work those programmes out. The reason why the draft doesn't exist today is because they know that there would be a huge opposition to the war.

“Right now, in America, something like 1.5% of Americans have any real stake in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from personal experience. Less than 5% of American families have sent a loved one to war. So the other 95%, they find it really easy to sit around and watch MTV and talk about who's on American Idol, and ignore the fact that there are Americans paying a very, very big price for the war that they're allowing to go on with their complacency.”

You committed your life to the US military and government. Do you now feel betrayed?

“I absolutely felt betrayed by the military and their treatment of me when I was looking for help. And I absolutely feel let down by Congress, because they have seen this happening. I'm not the first person to talk about getting a less than fully honourable discharge for a suicide attempt. They have been allowing this to happen. This is an issue that should be debated on every channel on TV. It should be debated by Congress all the time. It's not something that should be allowed to sit in a dark corner of the room that everyone wants to pretend doesn't exist.”

* Kris Goldsmith is featured in the documentary, Ward 54
** The interview took place at the Venice Film Festival, 2010

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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