AN ARMY OF ONE:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
At least 1 member of the United States Armed Forces will kill themselves per day through all of 2012.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM:
For the last 4 yrs., the United States has lost more troops to suicide than to enemy combatants. Despite the suicide rate growing at an alarming rate, the Pentagon has no decisive answer to why so many soldiers are taking their lives as of yet. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said it best, this issue has grown to epidemic proportions.
Wars are ugly, they’re costly, and they’re brutal (especially modern ones). Additionally, mass deception accompanies all wars, hiding its true motivations. Couched in terms like “freedom” and “democracy” or the United States self espoused benevolent intentions thinly veil the fact it is economic expansion and exploitation in the interests of US corporations driving the vast war machine. The United States has become war hungry having entered into at least 14 large scale military engagements since the conclusion of WWII. These expansion efforts haven’t come cheaply. Almost as devastating as the loss of life, which is enormous, is the damage done to both our soldiers and our societies psyche.
There is a serious statement being made when more soldiers die at their own hand, than that of the enemy, to the tune of 1 per day. Not only has the rate been rising, its doubled within the last 5 years, the last 4 of which their total has been higher than those killed in service. By some estimates, this past year saw an increase to 349 suicides from 2011’s total of 310. These trends don’t just stand out; they serve as a glaring indictment; not just of the Pentagon, or the Military-Industrial Complex, but each of us for allowing this to happen.
Regardless of our feelings on the military, or warfare in general, I feel that we can all appreciate the sacrifice being made by those serving in the armed forces, and that they deserve more than is being done for them. It is our duty to make sure they are taken care of when they return; providing access to services such as counseling and job placement are essential to fulfilling this mandate.
OUTBREAK OF AN EPIDEMIC
Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the rate of troops being treated for mental health related issues has skyrocketed up 65% with nearly 100,000 soldiers now diagnosed with at least one mental health ailment. There are several explanations for this growth, the most prominent being the elimination of the universal draft after the conclusion of the unpopular Vietnam War.
With a growing workload placed upon an increasingly smaller standing military, many combat troops experience rapid deployments and extended separations from their families. In addition to the strain placed upon the “combat” troops, support troops also experience added operational stress associated with being asked to do more with less.
The effects of this are many and run deeply within society, however should come as no surprise, with one source so aptly pointing out;
We have chosen to ask and allow a few to shoulder voluntarily the burden once shared by all. We have chosen to permit our leaders to involve us in wars the majority of citizens do not support. These choices have consequences that may include the creation of a constellation of social, cultural, and political conditions which conspire to elevate the rate of suicide in the Army and Marine Corps
The fact that the burden of war is placed upon the shoulders of increasingly few hasn’t slowed the United States appetite for war any, having been at war for the past 11 yrs. straight, costing the lives of an en estimated upwards of 15,000 Afghan civilians and more than 6,000 service members by costsofwar.org’s count.
Many of those who survive to return home will bear invisible scars with them which have the potential to make it difficult for them to adjust to life following a deployment.
Relationship problems increase the likelihood of returning troops committing suicide, with single people being 24% less likely to commit suicide than those separated or divorced. According to one official in contact with veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 73% of the people they lose to suicide happened 6 months after they returned home.
The military’s archaic approach to mental health only further reinforces the already existing stigmas surrounding suicide, PTSD and depression. Often, the commanding officer’s initial reaction to a soldier claiming or reporting combat stress related mental health related issues is to assume that they’re faking it. Not only was mental health not very high of a priority, the stance often taken regarding its associated issues was antagonistic in nature only further exacerbating the problem.
Many soldiers are afraid to talk about their feelings (regardless of their toxicity) within a military setting, leading many who suffer to do so silently. The Department of Defense Suicide Event Report published annually, has the number of soldiers who don’t lead on about their intentions as high as nearly 75%. Those that did discuss them did so with loved ones outside of the military.
Often the motivations for not sharing the emotional turmoil they are experiencing, relate to job security and social standing within their peer group. Many of the older soldiers have passed on faulty information that reporting mental health related issues is equivalent to committing “career suicide”, potentially resulting in the soldier being ousted from the military altogether. When soldiers finally do overcome those barriers of reluctance and fear, they are not met with a welcome sight. The military’s mental health services are woefully lacking. Many get turned away altogether. That was the case for Captain Morrison, whose tragic story a recent TIME article chronicled. An ailing Morrison sought help 6 times in 3 days each time being turned away and told to return later;….later…later…Finally, after the third day, rather than rescheduling, he took his own life. I’m sure this is just one story of many highlighting service shortcomings;
The lack of services available to soldiers due to under-staffing is no breaking news to the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed, we are behind the curve in services for our troops, adding that “one barrier is that the military doesn’t have enough caregivers to address this shortfall”. Whats interesting is the fact there has been plenty of fair warning for the Pentagon to fill that demand, like it does so many airstrikes. With their head in the sand, military leadership has largely ignored PTSD, and the suicides it can potentially lead to. Such was the case when in 2006 NPR went to Ft. Carson.
In 2006 NPR investigated how well troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan were able to access the mental health benefits promised to them by the military. At Ft. Carson, they were able to witness the culture of the military surrounding mental health first hand. Those they interviewed recalled regularly being denied permission to go to scheduled treatment sessions and punishment. This was confirmed by the commanding officers; explaining that they felt they were “faking” it, and that kind of behavior took away from the objectives of the military for which they are responsible and wouldn’t be tolerated.
Many soldiers exhibiting signs of PTSD, were not referred to a mental health professional. This is a recurring and widespread issue throughout the Armed Forces and is documented in a study. The investigative arm of Congress, the GAO, took a look at the data from the screening process for PTSD, their findings are alarming. Nearly 80% of the troops who showed potential symptoms of PTSD were ignored and not given a referral for a mental health follow-up.
As a result of NPR’s reporting, the military did take action; initiating court-martial proceedings against one of the soldiers participating in the story. The negative media received from the story didn’t spur them into taking action, only retaliation.
This sums up the military’s approach to mental health fairly well, in a nutshell.
Although suicide rates rose all year, July proved to be the worst month, ever, setting the record for suicides in one month at 38. Complicating analysis is the fact less than half of military personnel who committed suicide had deployed for the Afghanistan or Iraq war and only 15% were involved in direct combat. Military downsizing, operational stress, and poor civilian job prospects upon returning were among the stressors. Nor is the epidemic partial to those on ACTIVE duty. It appears that the National Guard, Air Force, Navy, and Marines Reserves have also resorted to taking their own lives, although in smaller numbers.
Still full of surprises, the statistics also show veteran soldiers with a ranking of Sergeant or higher committing suicide more than junior enlisted men 54-46 respectively. This statistic is not what you would expect, but then again nothing about these suicides has been easy to predict.
Despite the Obama administration increasing funding for mental health/family counseling programs within the military, in his 2011 budget, the numbers continued to rise. Underestimating the crisis severity, and failing to decisively target the culture within the military surrounding PTSD & mental health doomed the increased funding from the beginning.
What good is a budget when people are either too scared to use it, or their diagnosis is overlooked?
Following the record pace set this year, especially during the summer and the increased media coverage it received; The Pentagon was forced to act decisively to “get out in front” of this issue they’ve ignored for years, despite years of research.
Since the suicide rate has reached critical mass, the Pentagon and the White House have gone into red alert, launching into frenzied action. Secretary of Defense Panetta issued a directive to all branches of the armed forces forbidding the punishment, hazing, or harassment of those seeking treatment for mental health related disorders.
All branches of the government have begun mandatory trainings on the topic, detailing signs to look for and rules to follow about approaching mental health. Additionally, in further efforts to change the culture surrounding the issue;
President Obama has broken with a long-standing unspoken tradition of not recognizing the bodies of those killed by suicide among the dead and offering letters of condolence to loved ones. A move that was not met without its fair share of controversy, especially during campaign season.
But will this be enough?
All of these are steps in the right direction, but the Pentagon needs to take a more proactive approach to mental health treatment if they want to see any significant gains. Treatment needs to be encouraged and not merely allowed, for all troops, not just those who see action. Doing so would normalize this healthy coping mechanism over time, erasing any stigma attached.
Not surprisingly, in all the research I did, not a single mention did I hear made of the best method of combatting this issue.We could stop going to war; Period. Scale back or outright end our global military engagements.
If the United States can’t afford the programs, or the facilities to treat its Vets for mental disorders, or if it is unwilling or unable to give those services promised when they signed the contract; then the United States has no business making war in the first place.
No new war fought, no new tank built, or bomb dropped, until we’ve made serious progress in this area and other areas here at home.
It is up to us to make sure this issue receives the proper attention, and that our nation fulfills it’s obligation to current soldiers and veterans, seeing this problem solved This is important to me because I, like everyone else, have loved ones who serve. Because I refuse to turn a blind eye, living blissfully ignorant to this growing problem.
With the rising Middle-East tensions, let us remember that we as a nation must do better by these men and women who have sacrificed so much through their service. Let us make sure that on any given night an estimated 64,000 veterans do not go without food, or shelter; sinking deeper into cycles of substance abuse, despair and addiction leading to the staggering statistic that an estimated 14 veterans commit suicide each and every day (The V.A isn’t able to keep as accurate statistics as the military is for those still actively serving in the armed forces). Data surrounding PTSD treatment shows minimal recovery rates, meaning that many soldiers who develop PTSD will live with it for the rest of their lives.
Let us do whatever is necessary to improve the conditions of those soldiers we already have before we rush into war.
More importantly, lets make sure that we are never again manipulated into a war that’s not in our interests and let’s do it for our veterans; past, present and future, now that we know what the true cost is. For all you out there who “support our troops”, Michael Moore said it best in his Op-Ed “the only way you can honestly say you support the troops is to work night and day to get them out of these hell holes they’ve been sent to.”
They deserve better; We deserve better.
- Military suicides reach record high, Pentagon reports (cnn.com)
- Pentagon Needs Battle Plan for Troop-Suicide Threat – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Soldiers Say Army Ignores, Punishes Mental Anguish (NPR.org)
- Suicide among veterans receiving less attention than active-duty deaths (statesman.com)
- Anthony Swofford on the Epidemic of Military Suicides (current.com)
- Military Suicides Hit An All Time High In 2012 (classwarfareexists.com)
- The Third Surge (nation.time.com)
- Why We Keep Losing the War to Suicide (pbs.org)
- U.S. Military Suicides Reached Record High in 2012 (nation.time.com)
- One Concrete Thing (nation.time.com)