Mentally Ill and US Troop Risk

In the search for atmospherics, US soldiers in Afghanistan get a reminder of the challenges facing the mentally ill.

By David Axe for

The US soldiers were prepared for many things, but not for this. On April 7, heavily-armed members of 2nd Platoon, Fox Company — part of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry — walked into the town of Margah, in the mountainous eastern half of the strategic Afghan border province of Paktika, on an intelligence gathering mission.

The Americans were looking for what patrol leader 1st Lt. Sean McCune called ‘atmospherics’ — that is, information on the daily lives of village inhabitants. But they also found something that, to them, seemed very strange: a grown Afghan man, his hands chained together, forced to sit against a wall by his male family members.

The chained man was ‘not right in his head,’ a family member explained through an interpreter. He was chained because, when free, he often hurts the women and children, the relative explained.

The man in chains was one of Afghanistan’s uncounted mentally ill. In a country lacking most basic health services, the mentally ill receive even poorer treatment. The chains-and-wall approach is typical, but rare enough that it surprised McCune and the other Americans.

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The atmospherics the US soldiers were looking for are important because they establish a baseline for routine activity. With this baseline, the International Security Assistance Force can identify unusual activities that might indicate an insurgent presence.

Part of registering atmospherics is enrolling male and military-age Afghans in a NATO database that tracks names, birthplaces, iris patterns and fingerprints. On the patrol in Margah, the Americans registered several of the men in the compound housing the chained man, but they didn’t risk approaching the chained man himself.

That was a problem, as ISAF has learned that the Taliban and other insurgent groups often use the mentally ill to carry out suicide attacks. The chained man in Margah posed a security risk for the US troops — one they could not catalogue in their usual way.

So McCune ordered his radio operator Pvt. Chris Munoz to write down the man's location, for future reference. They might not be able to pass the man's information to all of ISAF, but at least the 2nd Platoon troops could keep an eye out for him locally.

The encounter in Margah proved an important learning experience. The very next day, on a patrol to the neighbouring town of Baqer Kheyl, the same platoon discovered a locked room in one compound. As they unlocked the door, the family warned that their mentally-ill relative lived inside. McCune told his soldiers to expect the unexpected while searching the room. ‘Don't start shooting,’ McCune said.