The Self-Killing Fields
In the first 131 days of the Obama administration, we’ve played witness to an impressively ambitious and manifold agenda that has spanned gender equality in the workplace, an economic stimulus plan, the banning of torture, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, a phased troop reduction in Iraq, the passage of an extended childrens’ health care bill. And this is just the beginning. It isn’t so much a liberal/socialist agenda as the sneering jocks of the GOP are saying but merely a more law-abiding, humane one that our government ought to always pursue. At this point, the Obama administration is still, and will continue to be, in damage control mode. Yet the first signs from Mr. Obama are relatively auspicious.
However, there are still issues on which the president could speak out yet has not. There’s the problem of contractor abuse and outright fraud in Iraq and where’s there’s contractor corruption in Iraq, then surely it exists in Afghanistan (although in the nearly seven years of that conflict, we haven’t heard a word of any such thing going on). The president should also continue his campaign mantra of not letting lobbyists influence government to the degree that they have. There are vulture funds, which the president, as per his Constitutional prerogative, can eliminate with the stroke of a pen. He could also ban the Clinton-era Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has been responsible for more suicides among closeted gay servicepeople than we’ll likely ever know.
And that is something on which the president could be taking a more proactive stance yet has not: The problem of the rising suicide rate in our armed forces is getting so serious that even Republicans are getting concerned. Last February 4th, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) said during a House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs hearing, “This suicide rate issue is the canary in the mine, in a sense.”
Predictably, the problem isn’t restricted to the Army- the Navy and Marine Corps have also seen a rise in their suicide rate last year. The smaller, elite Marine Corps alone suffered 41 suicides in 2008. The much larger US Navy also saw an increase to 39, a figure that brings that of their sister branch in the Corps into conspicuous relief. The US Air Force lost 38 airmen to suicide in ‘08.
What is especially tragic is that the disturbingly high Army suicide rate also includes National Guardsmen who’d originally signed up for two weekends a month and never thought they’d be deployed for two, three or four ever-lengthening tours of duty that would separate them from their families, see them lose their civilian jobs and face foreclosure as a result.
While it’s true that only two thirds of last year’s Army/National Guard suicides deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, 85 or 86 of the ones who did deploy and kill themselves is still an unacceptable figure. The problem got so bad in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, the home of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne, that they had to shut down normal operations for three days earlier this month after two soldiers committed suicide in the same week. As alarming as the 128 confirmed suicides from last year are, the Army has already lost exactly half that many to self-extinction and we’re still nowhere near the end of June.
So why is the suicide rate climbing even though a full one third never deployed to either war? Part of the theory as to why is the stress of selling homes, moving to a new city and the toll it takes on families. Yet, speaking as a former Air Force brat who had to pull up stakes every 2-3 years, I can tell you that’s part and parcel of being a military family.
The root of the problem, aside from the stress of deploying and redeploying into two quagmires overseas, is the General George S. Patton mentality that’s still endemic in the armed forces. Base commanders such as Brigadier General Stephen Townsend of Ft. Campbell and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullins have appeared to make serious and sincere inroads toward tackling the problem.
Yet somewhere in the middle, from the highest levels of command down to the boots on the ground, there’s still a prejudice against those who openly ask for help. The reluctance to do so only exacerbates their pre-existing condition of suicidal ideations. And speaking of pre-existing conditions, word almost surely has spread of the perversion of the Chapter 5-13 clause: More and more military doctors examining shell-shocked and wounded soldiers are diagnosing their wartime injuries as pre-existing. The DoD does this primarily for one reason: to save money on disability payouts and VA assistance (which isn’t even part of the Pentagon’s annual defense budget).
And the subtraction of funding for veterans with PTSD has resulted in longer waits for treatment, if it comes at all, and after being made to pay a Bush-era $230 registration fee. As far back as 2006, nearly 100,000 veterans appealed to the Veteran’s Administration for help with their post traumatic stress syndrome even though the VA had been funded by the Bush administration and Congress for perhaps a quarter of that number.
So, for many disturbed and suicidal soldiers, it’s just easier to say nothing. While military suicide rates have historically climbed during wartime, it would be all too easy to blame the current spike on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, while no one person has tied it all together, I think it would plausible to say that the steadily climbing suicide rate in our armed forces is synechdochal of much else that plagues our nation: Home foreclosures, joblessness, a high divorce rate, etc.
While a civilian suicide of any number is just as tragic, when we’re talking about a military number that officially reaches 246 a year, it’s especially tragic and begins to impinge on our military’s ability to vouchsafe our national security.
Outreach programs within the military are a good start but it ought not be restricted to the beleaguered boots on the ground. Sensitivity classes, behind the door asskickings, whatever works, also need to be implanted between the ground troops and the command level until this tragic problem is seriously addressed and the prejudice against those in serious need of psychological treatment is eradicated once and for all.
The Obama administration has not mentioned the rising suicide rate in our military since it was the Obama campaign when then-Senator Obama one year ago last Friday mentioned a report on military suicides. It’s a pretty sad day in the neighborhood when Congressional Republicans who waffled, made excuses and even blamed the troops for the Water Reed Hospital scandal are more vocal about this suicide problem than the seemingly oblivious administration.
Therefore, I think it would be a good idea to contact several veterans’ advocacy groups and to petition them to petition the president and Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert Gates to address this deadly serious problem from the highest levels of our government. We cannot help these tortured souls unless we can gain their trust.
You can start by going to Vote Vets.org, John Soltz’s organization. Then, there’s the National Gulf War Research Center, which specializes in helping veterans and active duty servicepeople alike in dealing with the problems that arise from the present war in the Gulf. Capveterans.com is also another good place to start as they target PTSD in the military.