November 3, 2009

Michael Anthony Interview

“You are going to war!” Michael Anthony remembers a drill instructor telling him and some fellow recruits during basic training. “It is no longer a question of if you are going to go, but a question of when. Look around! In a few years, or even a few months, several of you will be dead. Some of you will be severely wounded or so badly mutilated that your own mother can’t stand the sight of you. And for the real unlucky ones, you will come home so emotionally disfigured that you wish you had died over there.”

Soon thereafter, Anthony found himself in Iraq, where he spent the next year working as an operating room medic. In his newly-released memoir, Mass Casualties, he tells about this year, describing how all of his drill instructor’s predictions came to fruition. As I wrote last week, Mass Casualties is an extraordinary work, enjoyable to read but also important for its honest portrayal of life in the military.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Anthony. Here’s what we talked about.

You’ve written on your blog that the TV show M*A*S*H does a better job portraying the realities of military life than many of the “real life” stories you’ve seen in the news. Explain to those who haven’t read your book, why you feel this way. What does M*A*S*H get right that so many news stories don’t?

The first thing that comes to mind is the word “Absurdity.” M*A*S*H got across the real absurdity that comes with war, and it has nothing to do with pro or anti war, just the realities. So many times, I see war movies or a war related TV show/episode, or books, and they all seem too perfect. As if everything is worded perfectly, and all the situations come full circle beginning, middle, end. It’s almost so dull, that I could probably (and this goes for most Veterans I know) watch, any TV show or movie, and if it’s about the military or war, predict what’s going to happen or how things are going to be portrayed. It’s like people already have this perception of the military and war, that the media just fills in the perception rather than tell what really goes on. And anything against the grain, they don’t report because it’s outside of people’s perceptions.

But that’s what M*A*S*H was all about, the craziness of war, that people would never believe goes on. I remember watching one episode and there was a man walking around in woman’s clothes, and I thought that was so funny because, I do remember a few instances where there were guys walking around in drag. It’s little things like that, when most people think of war, they don’t think of men/women goofing around and walking around in drag or doing crazy things. So when you tell them crazy little stories like that, they never believe them; but if you told them a story of a building blowing up, thirty people getting shot, etc., etc., they’d believe that in a heart-beat.

People often assume that just because people go to war, there’s no fun. I think M*A*S*H showed that people make do with what they do. In Iraq, I had the worst times of my life, my worst month, week, day, and hour, all happened in Iraq; but you know what, some of the most fun times of my life also happened over there. So, I go back to my original word, M*A*S*H captured the Absurdity of the situation, and that everything isn’t perfect.

I definitely got the impression that people in your unit were always trying their hardest to create some sense of normalcy. Which, I imagine, largely explains the clowning around, the obsession with office gossip, etc. Of course, it’s impossible to create a sense of normalcy when you’re in a war zone, when you know you might get blown to pieces by a mortar rocket at any given moment. So, in an attempt to escape from reality, many in your unit turned to drugs. Exactly how many people do you think were using drugs?

Well, you’re absolutely right; people did take and get into drugs for a way to escape what was going on. I mean, you’re over there, and if you close your eyes, your thoughts go to the last several things you’ve seen—death, and destruction, and if you open your eyes you see all the death and destruction going on. In an attempt to get out of the circle, people would take drugs, and then when you close your eyes, you see spirally lines and different colors, instead of death. I mean if those were your options, what would you choose? I can’t say for certain how many people were doing drugs, but I can say there’s enough going on that it’s a problem.

What types of drugs are we talking about?

Some of the drugs I’ve heard of going on over there, and have seen—and done—and that are being abused are: Percocet, Vicodin, Pot, Coke, Heroin, Hash, Salvia Divornium, Ambien, Robitusin, Dust-Off, Whip-its, Opium and NyQuil.

And if people weren’t popping pills to escape, they were popping them to sleep! Many people were popping sleeping pills like Pez, or some type of sleep medication/remedy.

Suicide, of course, is another—really, the ultimate—way to escape from reality. At one point in Mass Casualties, you describe how a fellow soldier started to show signs that he was suicidal. Although it seemed clear that this individual might try to harm himself, his officers refused to send him away to receive the care he needed, fearing that doing so might make them look bad. Was this an isolated incident?

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident of one suicidal-soldier not getting the care he needs. However, if you look at the statistics for active duty soldiers and veterans, more soldiers have killed themselves than have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The statistics say five active duty service members commit suicide a day, and some statistics have up to eighteen veteran suicides a day, and a thousand attempts a month! And on top of all this, Katie Couric recently did a series of news casts that exposed that the Veterans Administration was actually trying to cover up these suicide numbers!

When you went over to Iraq, you knew there’d be Sunni insurgents trying to kill you. But did you have any idea that so many of your problems would come from your own commanders? Obviously you didn’t expect to be coddled, but some of your leaders seemed completely self-absorbed, at times even sadistic.

There was a joke that our unit had while in Iraq. Someone would ask us: “Do you hate the Iraqis?” and we’d answer: “No, the only people I hate are in my unit.”

What I can’t understand is how our leaders saw fit to treat the soldiers as they did. We worked in a hospital and a severely wounded patient didn’t get seen for one hour, because there was an awards ceremony going on. Our commander didn’t want to open our hospital early so he lied and said we were operating when we weren’t. I had to do extra guard duty just because two higher ranking people wanted to have an [adulterous] affair.

There are too many peccadilloes of human nature that are missed and not talked about, and it’s to the detriment of our soldiers that these situations aren’t talked about. And the only way to fix them, or to do something about them, is to admit them—that’s always the first step.

I keep reading in the news that returning soldiers aren’t getting the care they need, which seems to be one reason why veterans have such high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, etc., etc. Are these reports accurate? What’s been your personal experience with the VA?

Absolutely, these reports are accurate. Being a veteran makes you more likely to smoke cigarettes, have an alcohol/drug problem, to attempt to kill yourself, kill yourself, and end up homeless.

As far as the VA goes, recently Katie Couric did a series of newscasts that exposed the VA for trying to cover up suicide numbers.

So what’s the answer? What should we—what should the VA, what should the average citizen—be doing to better help veterans?

Recently the Army Times had an article stating that the only consistent cure for PTSD is exposure therapy. This is where Veterans get together and share their stories and hear the stories of other veterans. The only cure is to understand and to be understood.

If people want to help our returning veterans then they’ve got to be willing to hear the full story and not just the parts they want to hear. We’ve got to listen to the worst, most decadent parts of the war, because this is where real growth is going to come from. We’ve got to learn and share the real stories!