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When Johnny comes home

THE NEWS of military base closures throughout the country has brought an outcry from those who work at the bases and from communities that depend economically on their presence. But in the case of military hospital closings, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation's capital, what few have commented on is just what goes on inside those hospital corridors -- more precisely, what goes on inside the mind of the soldier who returns from war having left behind an arm or leg -- or perhaps more -- in Iraq. The paradox of war is that those who are most fit are at risk of becoming the most physically damaged.

Military bodies have long been thought of as war machines. They are part of military armament and, to a large degree, public investments. Boot camp is a way of molding that body through tough physical and mental discipline. The overweight grunt drops pounds and turns adipose into muscle; those who already have well-muscled bodies forge even bigger armor.

The investment is public not just because our tax dollars go to making warrior bodies. It is public because the classic warrior/athlete body has become a model for many Americans who themselves have had no direct military experience and little appetite for it. Consider the proliferation of fitness programs with military sounding names-- ''Fitness Corps," ''The Sergeant's Program," ''Basic Training," and ''The Fitness Force," to cite just a few in my neighborhood. These are civilian boot camp that can help chisel a military body without the sacrifice of military service.

Yet as public and time-honored as the investment in military bodies is, the loss of a military body remains harrowingly private. As a society, we still do not know how to welcome home the wounded warrior -- how to express deep appreciation and respect at the same time as profound grief. In the mind of the individual soldier, coping with physical loss is complicated by the fact that warriors are trained to be stoic. They are trained to ''suck it up," ''to tough it out," in military training, in war, and in loss.

The stoic culture in the military is not just the popularized version. In military academies, such as the US Naval Academy (where I was the Distinguished Chair in Ethics for two years), students typically read Epictetus, the first century Stoic from whom Marcus Aurelius took his inspiration. Epictetus urges his readers to face all deprivations, especially physical ones, as opportunities to show strength. We are to be like ''invincible athletes." Still, our bodies are ''indifferents," by which Epictetus means that they don't count toward happiness. They are outside happiness because they are outside our full control.

It is easy to see Stoicism's appeal within the military. To be in the military is by definition to give up a certain amount of agency. To reclaim it back by narrowing the perimeter of what is within one's own dominion is, in a way, liberating. Hence the Army's tendency to focus on the individual in its recruitment campaigns from ''Be All that You Can Be" to today's ''An Army of One." These slogans soften the notion of a modern military as a monolithic corps and emphasize instead individual courage and heroism. They neglect to mention, however, their corollaries -- personal sacrifice and psychological trauma.

Those who come back from war bear personal scars. Inside the corridors of hospitals like Walter Reed are men and women who have lost limbs in mortar attacks; others have lost their eyes to shrapnel from car bombs in Baghdad. But for every soldier who comes back physically injured there is one who has returned emotionally shattered. Some walk the perimeter of the hospital grounds, as if still on watch; others relive their injuries in recurring nightmares. Each has learned that a warrior's mind and body are not bulletproof.

As an enlightened public, we need to work hard to remove the stigma that many in the military still harbor about seeking psychological help for war trauma. And we need to ensure not only that the Veterans Administration, but the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Reserves have adequate resources to treat those who suffer from war trauma. Current studies from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research indicate that 17 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts predict that the numbers will swell three and four years after deployments end. It is likely to be worse for those engaged in fighting up close with insurgents. With base and hospital closures, will the Department of Defense have the resources for treatment?

On the battlefield itself, military leaders must find collective time to grieve and teach their men and women that proper grieving can strengthen, not weaken moral fiber and troop solidarity. Shakespeare's archetypal Stoic warrior, Coriolanus, got it right, when he described the challenge, ''It is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion." This is a lesson doctors and therapists at military hospitals know well. It is a lesson all military leaders need to take to heart.

Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, is the author of the forthcoming book ''Stoic Warriors."

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