Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was talking of the military’s ability to fight future wars Wednesday when he suddenly changed gears. “We had five suicides in the Army last weekend,” the nation’s top military officer abruptly volunteered. And, he warned, such horrors are only going to grow.
He almost seemed to spit out these words, unbidden – as if to push them out quickly might temper their sting. “I think we’re going to see a significant increase in the challenges that we have in terms of troops and our families,” Mullen continued. As the demands for troops in the war zones eases, problems are going to rise as war-weary soldiers return home. “Things that have been pent up, or packed in, or basically suppressed or sucked up — whatever term you want to use — we’re going to start to see that as well,” he warned at a breakfast meeting with reporters.
The five suicides last weekend included three at Fort Hood in Texas, and a pair at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Four soldiers are believed to have killed themselves at the Texas base over the past week, bringing to 20 the number of suspected suicides at the huge post so far this year. All four had fought – and been decorated – for combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. The rate at Fort Hood is roughly four times the national average. There were 11 suicides at Fort Hood in 2009.
“Dealing with PTSD, dealing with the injuries, dealing with just the overall pressures that so many have dealt with for so long,” Mullen said, “I think we’re going to see a growth in that before we see a decline.” But there remains one challenge that trumps all others. “The emergency issue right now for me is the suicide issue,” Mullen conceded. “It’s a very difficult problem.” Suicide in all the military services “has gone up dramatically since 2004.”
More than 1,000 troops have killed themselves over the past five years in a suicidal wave. The steepest hikes have been in the Army and Marine Corps, the two services providing most of the troops for nation’s two wars. A recent independent report ordered by Congress found the Pentagon’s suicide prevention efforts inadequate.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates elaborated on the impact of wartime stress on the nation’s troops Wednesday night. “These consequences include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children; increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began,” he told an audience at Duke University. “And most tragically, a growing number of suicides.”
All of the pathologies of war – PTSD, crime, domestic violence, suicide – are tolls that must be paid long after troops have left the battlefield. It has become obvious that mere billions of taxpayer dollars can not really blunt war’s psychic trauma. It’s almost painful to watch senior military leaders — so used to prevailing — try, and fail, to defeat this latest scourge. And warning it is only going to get worse.