Rachel MacNair has come up with a theory to bring peace. But it could turn soldiers into better killers.

Mind Field 

Rachel MacNair has come up with a theory to bring peace. But it could turn soldiers into better killers.

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Have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible, or upsetting that, in the past month, you: Have had any nightmares or thought about it when you did not want to? Tried hard not to think about it; went out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of it? Were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled? Felt numb or detached from others, activities or your surroundings?

In July, a study by The New England Journal of Medicine showed that one-fourth of U.S. troops show symptoms of major depression, anxiety or full-blown PTSD -- 16 percent from the Iraq theater and 11 percent from Afghanistan. Fewer than half of those diagnosed with a mental disorder have sought care, according to the study. There's no way to compare these numbers with statistics from the Vietnam War; the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study was implemented ten years after those troops had returned. But the data looks especially bleak when coupled with a March Department of Defense survey that showed suicide rates among soldiers in Iraq are a third higher than the average among soldiers stationed elsewhere.

Col. Thomas Burke, the director of mental-health policy for the Department of Defense, tells the Pitch he is unfamiliar with MacNair's work and declines to comment on her theory. But he has said in interviews that the military chooses not to discuss the morality of killing when training soldiers.

In the dining room of her bungalow, framed, yellowed portraits of MacNair's ancestors hang opposite her computer desk. Recently, she downloaded a copy of form DD 2796, the post-deployment health assessment issued by the Department of Defense.

The survey asks basically the same questions posed after Vietnam, still avoiding the point-blank query "Did you kill someone?"

"Now's the time to find out not only what they did but under what circumstances and how many," MacNair says. Does shooting a sniper differ from firing on a family running a roadblock? Do reservists respond to bloodshed differently from enlisted men? Does engaging the target make a soldier a walking mental time bomb?

Getting the proper clearance to ask those questions presents MacNair with a bureaucratic paradox: Researchers must publish their findings in professional journals to be taken seriously by the medical establishment and government policy makers, but if the government doesn't ask the proper questions, MacNair has no data to compose a study.

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study follow-up, which might provide that data and which should have been implemented last year, has stalled because the project's administrators have asked for bids from survey companies willing to do the work cheaper, says the VA's Murtaugh.

Meanwhile, the United States is conducting its biggest ground action since Vietnam, armed with the same old questions.

"It's not that people are arguing it [the theory] -- they're ignoring it," MacNair says. "So far, no one has hopped up to prove me wrong."

So far, there's been little incentive to prove her wrong.

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