21st Century War: What Journalists Need to Know

Researchers, clinicians and a retired Marine talk about how multiple deployments and the threat of grievous physical and psychological injury make it difficult for a veteran to make the journey home; part of Dart's Videos on Veterans series. 

The signature wound of the wars being fought today in Iraq and Afghanistan is traumatic brain injury, the signature weapon the improvised explosive device. The typical American service member is a volunteer and a large proportion are reservists. The changes these facts connote — in the composition of today's military and the nature of warfare — affect both veterans' experience of war and the support they get when they return.

Michael Jernigan is a Marine corporal from a Marine family, with a father who had served in Vietnam. He was on patrol near Mahmudiya, Iraq, one month away from the end of his deployment, when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. The physical injury was massive: His forehead had to be replaced with an acrylic plate; both his eyes were removed; his right hand had to be fully reconstructed. But he has said that the scars on the inside are worse than those we can see, and that what he calls his "psychological injury" can't be traced to a single incident.

Sonja Batten is the deputy director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. She says Jernigan's combat experience of corrosive stress from the constant threat of mortars and roadside bombs is a common attribute of today's wars. But the support and understanding he received from his family, sadly, is not always the norm.

This video was produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma from interviews conducted at "When Veterans Come Home," a conference held in Atlanta in 2010, sponsored by Dart Center, the McCormick Foundation and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. For more interviews on this subject, see our Videos on Veterans.


Michael Jernigan: I wanted a change, so I joined the Marine Corps, 'cause it had worked for everyone else in my family. And I got blown up. And I was severely wounded. And I came home. And I had to recover from that.

Sonja Batten: I think it's important for journalists who are reporting on these issues to understand that there are a number of aspects of the experience of being in a war zone that are going to be consistent across the history of humankind. Everyone who's been to war experiences similar issues around separation from family and friends and the stressors that they're exposed to: possible losses of buddies, things like that.

There are some unique aspects, though, for these conflicts that I think make a difference and I think it's important for journalists to understand. One is that because of the non-traditional warfare that's occuring in Iraq and Afghanistan, there really isn't a frontline.

MJ: I would say it's unfair to say that my psychological injury or my post-traumatic stress is derived from the bomb itself. I would say that it comes from the previous six months in a combat zone.

SB: There's sort of the possibility of being exposed to danger, regardless of what the situation is. And so that can affect people in terms of having to be on guard all the time. This can lead to issues of hypervigilance and anxiety after they return home.

MJ: The stress of just living in a combat zone – where at any time a mortar could land, or a rocket could land, or a sniper round could go off, or when you're walking down the street someone could fire upon you from a rooftop or something like that – I think all of that leads up to the psychological injury.

SB: I think that there are some differences in the population, the groups of people that are being sent into the war zone in these conflicts that are different from prior conflicts, that I think would be important for journalists to really pay attention to.

MJ: I think that the person I was, going into that, defined how I dealt with that type of stress, how I dealt with living under those conditions, how I dealt with being wounded and how I dealt with physically recovering from that and then mentally recovering.

SB: The high proportion of service members that are in the National Guard or Reserve components – it's important to understand how their experience is different from somebody who has been serving active-duty for several years. For the National Guard and Reserve, they don't necessarily live in a military community to begin with, and so when they come home, their neighbors, their family members, their employers may not understand what they've just been through.

MJ: I received a lot of support in the beginning from my family, from my mom, from my dad. My godfather came to visit me in the combat support hospital in Baghdad. My dad and stepmother were waiting for me to come off the medevac flight in Landstuhl, Germany. They flew on the flight with me to Bethesda, Maryland, where the rest of my family was waiting for me when I woke up, and they were the ones that supported me when I was recovering. They were the ones that supported me when I first got out of the Marine Corps. They were the ones that helped me do the things I needed to do.

Not everyone has that type of family support that I've had, that I've been so lucky to have.

Additional video by Charles Mostoller and Daniel Johnson-Kim.