Thursday, July 29, 2010

Suicides, Violence and Drug Abuse Mark the Strains of an Endless War

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On average, one U.S. soldier killed himself each day last month. That is the highest single-month suicide total reported by the U.S. Army since the Vietnam War ended more than 35 years ago.

It's also a symptom of a much larger problem.

The physical and emotional burden of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen disproportionately on too few American families. After nine years, the strain of near-constant deployment and redeployment is obvious.

Last year, for the first time in decades, the Army's suicide rate exceeded that of similar-age civilians. Six Missouri Army National Guard soldiers have committed suicide so far this year.

As for last month's toll, the 32 Army suicides mean that about as many U.S. soldiers died by their own hands as in combat in Afghanistan.

And that's only part of the story.

The grim statistics don't count veterans who already have returned home and separated from the service. Nor do they count Marines, sailors or airmen.

In 2008, an influential RAND Corp. report estimated that at least 300,000 troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress or major depression. That's roughly one in every five. People with such illnesses are at increased risk of suicide or violent behavior.

Military officials also are reporting high rates of alcohol and drug abuse. Divorce rates are up. So are rates of domestic violence and crime.

All of this has occurred even as the military has made a major effort to increase counseling for returning troops and to address the psychological needs of combat veterans.

But warrior culture, military culture, does not lend itself to such things.

The ideal is, and always will be, the tough soldier who ignores physical and emotional injuries as he presses ahead with his mission.

Faced with an entrenched enemy, military commanders of the 18th century often recruited what was called a "forlorn hope" to lead the assault. Think of it as a suicide squad.

The members of the squad went in first, fighting until victory was achieved or reinforcements arrived.

When you think about it, that's a little like how the all-volunteer military works. Except that instead of sending them once into the breech, we've sent them three and four and five and six times.

Now we must be the reinforcements.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, wants to allow service members to receive confidential counseling. That's an important step that would allow some troubled service members to talk about their problems without sacrificing their careers.

Ms. McCaskill also is supporting legislation that would allow therapists to be embedded with National Guard units so that they would be available to anyone who needs help in the combat zone.

The military and the VA are facing shortages of psychiatrists and therapists, but so are civilian health care providers. Those shortages must be addressed as part of a national physician work force development policy.

But that's going to take time; the problem for returning service men and women is acute now. All indications are that it will remain acute for the foreseeable future - long after the shooting stops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We sent those young people into harm's way. We have a moral obligation to address the physical and mental problems their service created.

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