September 03, 2007
DoD Identifies Army Casualty
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Spc. Travis M. Virgadamo, 19, of Las Vegas, Nev., died Aug. 30 in Taji, Iraq, in a non-combat related incident. He was assigned to the 3d Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 3d Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga.
The circumstances surrounding the death are under investigation.
For more information related to this release, the media may contact the Fort Stewart public affairs office at (912) 767-2479.
That's pretty much all you get from the DoD when it comes to soldiers' deaths. Who he was, where he was, and nothing else. "Non-combat related" means... Hit by a bus? Heatstroke? It may be under investigation, but you'd assume the cause of death would be obvious in such a young man.
It was, according to his local newspaper, the Pahrump Valley Times, "The soldiers who notified Vergadamo's family about his death reportedly said he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound." Just another victim of the Army's suicide crisis.
Like all big stories involving huge numbers, we tend to see the Army suicide rate as matter of appalling numbers -- 17.3 per 100,000, up from a low of 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001. They're just numbers and it's hard to see what they really mean. Newspapers turn them into bars on a graph -- they're so much more digestable that way.
We have an inherent fear of suicide -- we don't want to linger over the loss for too long. The survivors recover and the world moves on. The media, for their part, seem to have moved on. After the Associated Press broke the story that Army suicides were at a 26 year high, they moved on to the next story. After all, Paris Hilton probably sneezed or somebody running for president said something stupid. The military suicide rate became a two or three day story, then down the memory hole.
Spc. Virgadamo's story must be typical of all of the stories in this crisis. Pahrump Valley Times quotes Virgadamo's grandmother, Katie O'Brien, as telling them, "I don't know what happened, and I may never know what happened." The piece goes on:
One thing of which she is certain, however, is that Virgadamo was not in any condition to be sent to a war zone, where he transported ammunition.
O'Brien said her grandson, who had wanted to be either a soldier or a police officer since he was 4 years old, was having psychiatric problems about which the Army was aware when it sent him back into combat.
The Las Vegas SUN goes further. They tell of a visit Virgadamo made to his home in Pahrump, where he told his family "of being ordered into houses without knowing what was behind strangers' doors" and "walking along roadsides fearing the next step could trigger lethal explosives."
"Virgadamo told them he had been so frightened, he had sought and received psychiatric counseling from the military in Iraq," the SUN tells us. "He received additional counseling during a trip home in late July, his family said."
"They gave him Prozac and sent him back to Iraq," says his aunt, Rebecca McHugh. "They (military) knew his circumstances. They gave him counseling in Iraq before he came home and they gave him counseling in Georgia before he was sent back to Iraq. Now he's dead. What good is a dead soldier to them?" What good is a dead soldier to anyone?
This disregard for emotional trauma is typical and may be the root of the problem. In 2006, CBS News reported:
Army Staff Sgt. Bryce Syverson spent 15 months in Iraq before he was diagnosed by military doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sent to the psychiatric unit at Walter Reed Medical Center, CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi reports.
"It ended up they just took his weapon away from him and said he was non-deployable and couldn't have a weapon," says his father, Larry Syverson. "He was on suicide watch in a lockdown."
That was last August. This August, he was deployed to Ramadi, in the heart of the Sunni triangle -- and he had a weapon.
The Army has been "recycling" soldiers with PTSD and other emotional traumas back into deployment. This isn't extremely surprising. The goal of the military health system isn't the health of military members, it's referred to as "preserving the fighting force." The goal is not to heal soldiers, but to make them fit enough for duty again. And with Bush's big "surge" stretching the limits of our military, the bar of "fitness for duty" has been set so low that nearly anyone can clear it.
"The DOD admits they are sending mentally unfit soldiers into combat in Iraq," Alternet quotes Steve Robinson of Veterans for America as saying. "This is not supposed to happen... what were they thinking and what does it say about the overstretched military?"
"For sure, it needs to be known he had problems," O'Brien said of Virgadamo. "They were going to discharge him. I really think they (military) are at fault to keep someone there. I think he just knew he was going to die." I suppose in Virgadamo's case the only way to overcome that fear of death -- given his lack of support and resources -- was to make it a certainty. He's fearless now.
As the war goes on, as the military is stretched beyond the breaking point, remember that the term "non-combat related death" is often BS. It was combat that made Army Spc. Travis M. Virgadamo sick and it was throwing him back into combat that aggravated that illness to the point of becoming terminal.
The Army's investigation won't show that. The word "suicide" will be stamped on this case and that word assigns blame to the victim. In this case, the fault lies elsewhere. And there's absolutely no way the Army will admit their guilt.