By NYAMBEGA GISESA and PAUL WAFULA
Monday, April 28, 2014
Kenya: A Senior Kenya Defence Forces ( KDF) Private serving combat duty in Somalia who helped liberate thousands of kilometers of land from Al-Shabaab militants returned home to receive a frosty reception.
Contemporaries in the military and civilians call him a war hero every time he narrates to them stories of how they were blown up, shot at, traumatised and most importantly, how they whipped the enemy.
His friends honoured him with rounds of drinks. The military gave him a shiny medal, like the rest of the troops. They honoured him for serving the country gallantry.
But a “black shadow” has followed the 28-year-old Senior Private (name withheld) back home from Somalia. In public, he stood tall when he told the stories. Yet in private, he felt not like a rained on and wounded lion but a skinned chicken.
He was hounded by recurring images of war; agonising visions of corpses of his colleagues. He heard their shrieking dying voices and smelled their blood.
One hot day near the southern Somali town of Dhobley, his convoy was ambushed. Soldiers jumped off the military truck for cover.
The Senior Private landed hard on the ground and felt a sharp pain on his back. Due to his back injuries, the soldier says he is no longer the flexible athletic young man he was.
Today, he can’t run or have sex. He feels awkward without his gun, his constant companion during his tour in Somalia. He can barely hold its weight for long. “Every time I see my colleagues carrying out fitness exercises, I feel sorry for myself. These are some of the basic tasks that I am unable to do,” he told The Standard during an interview.
His tribulations are emblematic of the mounting challenges facing the army and returning soldiers of war. Medical issues, trauma, loss and a disintegrating family for some of the men.
Then there is the litany of promises by the military to provide the soldiers with both financial and psychological support that has not been met.
Corporal David shares a different story.
He survived two bullet wounds; one strained his walking steps.
“You know the enemy wants the bodies of those who have been killed so that they can show the residents that they have killed a soldier. So we had to protect the injured and the dead and that required armour and sometimes you would run out of it,” he adds.
“But the enemy was strange. They would ambush and later let us rest as if they were giving us time to recollect,” the wounded soldier reveals, “They were willing to die. We were even fighting young children of about 12 years.
” For Stanley, the bloodbath changed his perspective of the war.
“Al shabaab were in control of the territories but we were prepared. But when we got there, it was like hell on earth. At first it was like a normal journey to a different land, the day I realised that this was a real war and not a game was the day we were ambushed,” Stanley says.
“I saw somebody being killedâ€¦. someone I had known, someone I had been with and that’s when I realised that this was a real war and not a Hollywood movie.”
Many of the soldiers agreed to talk to us privately about their tribulations, fearing retribution. The three soldiers are currently deployed at military barracks within the city but not allowed to carry guns because their seniors consider them as “mentally unstable,” with their lives and the lives of their families turned upside down by depression, anxiety and stress.
Three years since the start of Operation Linda Nchi, hundreds of returning soldiers of war have been injured in battlefields and worse still, many of them are back home with no monitoring or care.
Most soldiers came back home believing their nightmares were over until they went for treatment and started seeking compensation for injuries.
Our investigation focused on the crisis facing those returning with physical and mental wounds.
We spoke to men who suffered gunshot wounds, injuries from falling off from running vehicles especially during ambushes and burns from land mines as well as improvised explosive devices.
Yet three years later, KDF is struggling to master the basics - how best to detect the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and provide the most effective ways to treat it. The care for visible injuries and the fairest means of compensating young men who served their country and have returned unable to lead normal lives remains a matter of contention.
“I do not know a single soldier who has been compensated for injuries suffered while in Somalia,” one of the soldiers who sought anonymity told The Standard.
Many suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage and various degrees of PTSD.
Some have endured psychological disorders in silence and ended becoming drug-addicts.
The brave men who put their jobs at risk to talk to The Standard illustrates broader problems when the number of injured soldiers is increasing, and when many of them are back home with no care.
The military promised to respond to the Standard on a query for the exact number of injured soldiers, but did not.
Our investigations have established that the list of injured occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country.
We spoke to dozens of injured men. One of them had a sorry tale of how his marriage is breaking down.
“I cry like an infant every night when I think about the war. I have made requests to get the services of a counselor but such orders have not been granted,” he reveals.
One of the men said that his wife has as well developed secondary PTSD, depression and anxiety while taking care of him.
“The military and the Government are supposed to look after the soldiers and their families,” one of the wives of the affected soldiers told the Standard.
Officials from the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) explained that details on the injured were the responsibilities of the countries contributing the troops.
“Issues of deaths and injuries are left to the contributing countries,” Elo Yao, an Amisom spokesperson, told the Standard. Mr Yao said he could not divulge more information since he is on leave.
However, Amisom Public Information Unit sent us an email later on.
“While it is our duty to pay compensation for deaths and disability suffered by soldiers serving under Amison, we are not in a position to make public the numbers. Under the Memorandum of Understanding between the AU and troop and police contributing countries, it is the prerogative of the contributing country to make such information public,” the email reads.
KDF has never made public the full list of the injured and dead soldiers in Somalia. They also declined to give out information on amounts of compensation to The Standard.
“Money is a very sensitive issue,” Colonel Willy Wesonga, the military spokesperson responded. “I can only talk about more on the compensation issues if you furnish me with the details.”
Col Wesonga could not respond to claims by the soldiers that none of them has been compensated for injuries suffered in Somalia.
“I don’t have individual details of where, how and when the injuries occurred,” he said.
But numbers are only part of the problem.
There is more. How do you to decide compensation for PTSD and other emotional disorders that have little basis in science?
The soldiers say they are suffering from flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia and social withdrawal. Some of them have been diagnosed with severe mental disorder.
Tragically, a number of them are seeking solace in drugs and alcohol.
Life beyond the hospital bed is a frustrating mountain of paperwork. To qualify for compensation, troops are required to prove the nature of their injuries through facing a Board of Inquiry.
And this can only happen after a doctor has ascertained the injuries. “The process for disability compensation begins with the setting up of a Board of Inquiry (BOI), including a medical doctor ascertaining the cause of death or injury upon which the BOI makes its recommendations to the AU Commission where again a Medical Board (if/when necessary) further considers the recommendation of the BOI,” Amisom explains.
The standard disability compensation which is the UN Standard and applied by the AU is $50,000.
The typical soldier is required to fill a form that will go through a chain of commands before arriving at the insurance agent.
The amount of compensation to be paid is calculated using the percentage of injuries suffered. “At first we were told that our compensation will be delayed because the insurance companies changed,” one of the soldiers said.
The troops claimed that they have not received clear guidelines from their bosses on medical care especially for those suffering from PTSD and compensation.
Despite promises for reform in military barazas (meeting that servicemen hold with the seniors in military barracks) that could see the compensation claims speeded, the fixes have been “frustratingly slow” in coming, as one soldier put it.
The Kenyan military does not have a lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers, meaning that those whose limbs are dismembered at war might live like that without assistance.
The KDF men say that with time they may be forced to exit through other-than-honorable discharges that may deny them benefits. Injured soldiers are first treated at the war frontline by military medical specialists.
Some said that they were given painkillers and antidepressants, then patted on the back and told,” Go on and fight boy.”
If the cases require further attention, they are then transported in military vehicles to Garissa.
Critical cases were put on military planes that cross the dangerous terrain and flown to the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital, located along Mbagathi road in Nairobi.
Despite being among the top hospitals in the country, sources told the Standard that the facility lacks enough psychiatrists and clinicians to properly treat the growing number of soldiers returning with injuries.
“Sometimes we wait for so long before being treated at the facility,” one of the soldiers said.
Even though mental trauma cases have been identified, we found out that there are no regular screens for PTSD and education for military families about potential symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress can be a serious burden: It can lead to family conflicts, interference at places of work and can take a toll on relationships and parenting.
In places like the US, studies have shown that the symptom of “chronic hyperarousal” – the distorted sense of always being under extreme threat – can lead to increased aggression and violent behavior.
There are also very few hospital trauma centers to assist the heroes. In the manner in which the Kenya military operates, budgets for the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital are not known. How much goes to the injured soldiers is also unknown.
The troops are challenging the public and the county and national governments to think about the true cost of the war, especially on families.
“The war is not over just because you brought us back home,” one of the soldiers said. Instead, for many, the war at home begins.
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