Battleland

One Concrete Thing

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Army photo by Pfc. Bethany L. Little

Trial By Fire: U.S. Army troops in training in Iraq in 2009.

Years now. Almost 11 years into the war in Afghanistan, and with Iraq mostly behind us, we’re still unable to get our hands and our minds around the military suicide rate.

July marked the highest number of suicides among soldiers the army has faced. My colleagues Mark Thompson and Cam Ritchie have both written extensively about this, as have I. In fact, I felt like I had nothing left to say, so I’ve been quiet on the subject for months.

For the record, I came close to becoming a statistic in 2006.

At the absolute nadir of an episode of stark depression, and unable to get control of my PTSD, I drove alone into the desert with a 9mm pistol intent on killing myself. I was interrupted. For an average of 18 veterans a day, that doesn’t happen. For about 1.25 soldiers a day in July, it didn’t either.

The military, and particularly the U.S. Army, has conducted studies, increased surveillance and monitoring of soldiers returning from combat, built resiliency training, encouraged a buddy system of overwatch for signs of depression, and more. Significant, but apparently ineffective.

This approach seems rather like fighting suicides as a prairie fire: beating around the edges of the problem, trying to contain it all the while looking at the sky hoping for rain. That rain, the eventual end of the war, I believe will have little effect on the problem. It will simply shift the balance of suicides from active duty soldiers to veterans.

I’ll leave the medical commentary to others, but as a survivor I’ll say this: a big part of the problem is the crushing systemic and individual stigma attached to asking for help for psychological health issues.

Major General Dana Pittard wrote on his blog a few months ago “I am personally fed up with Soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

I suspect he was speaking from frustration at his inability and that of other senior leaders to staunch the rising tide. But his comments also point out something else: many people see mental health problems as weakness, something to just get over. Come on there trooper, buck up and carry on!  Trust me on this, it ain’t that easy.

Pittard, like many senior leaders, has made a very successful career of thinking and leading his way around, over, or through obstacles and problems. But for this problem, it won’t be possible to draft the commander’s intent, send it down to the staff planners, and receive in a matter of hours a set of three suggested courses of action. No, if it were so, the military would have solved this problem—one that Vice Chief of Staff General Lloyd Austin calls “the most difficult enemy I’ve faced in 37 years of service”—long ago.

The services are fantastically flexible organizations: Semper Gumby is an unofficial motto in many units. The military was once a place where blacks and whites served in separate units, where women were part of a different Corps of troops, and where homosexuality was outlawed. It took legislation to change structures; those changes improved individual lives, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness.

But the idea that mental health problems are health problems, that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a wound, hasn’t sunk in yet and likely can’t be legislated into law to make it sink in.

So here’s one concrete thing the military can do to augment the myriad other efforts underway: from corporal to general, leaders need to fight the stigma of asking for help. Do this by individually and corporately accepting the facts that psychological health issues are no different than any other health issue, and that PTSD is a wound.

This alone won’t solve the problem, but until leaders’ attitudes change about PTSD and depression, making it OK to ask for help, soldiers will fear coming out about their psychological health problems. A soldier who is afraid to seek help can’t take advantage of all the other programs in place. It is the soldier who doesn’t ask who we cannot help.

4 comments
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VeteransPTSDProject
VeteransPTSDProject

 The military must address stigma in order to help its troops.  This IS the disconnect in getting troops treatment for PTS.  It seems like the military is addressing every angle BUT addressing stigma associated with PTSD.  

Ron Capps has, indeed, named the One Concrete Thing - why can't the military get on board with this?  

No matter what amazing breakthroughs happen with treatment for PTS, it is all for nothing because Service Members and Vets will not get the treatment due to stigma.  Brilliant writing - salient guidance.  Which military leaders will listen?

Shawn Earnest
Shawn Earnest

.---.

As a Marine, a Sailor, or a Soldier regards their own suicide and or murder --perspectively is destruction of U.S. government property and is one in the same thing by Military law these days, illegal and what follows is fort leavenworth eligible for life in prison if caught and properly executed and charged.

I really could give a donkey poo-poo about any creature this low crawling from under a slime swamp rock.

In either perspective these are Ungodly acts by murdering your own military brother and or sister, and or murdering a any fellow military personnel and obviously making this action appear as a suicide, or any military personnel murdering themselves in the act of suicide and in all of which these actions are equally illegal, are angst heinous crimes and is morally deplorable.

Therefore, these are dishonorable terrorist acts of cowardliness by murder either self inflicted or otherwise is murder as fact, believe --true.

These are not brave troops, but in fact are unethical, immoral, dishonorable, zero-integrity, zero-dedication, zero-dignity, and zero-bravery as military personnel --heinously deplorable.

Only by these action equates acts of terrorism against U.S.citizens of military ranks and by murder is destruction of government property that is the lowest cowardliness on this face of this Earth.

Shame on all of you for not being in the image of our brave military personnel that we all so proudly honor with respect and reverence.

With this exception of military personnel murdering other military personnel and making these murders appear as suicide --deplorable.

Any military personnel commits suicide is deplorable equally so. Therefore military personnel are murdering U.S.Citizens in military ranks, horrid.

Either way --DEPLORABLE!

This is heinous to cover-up such murderous action by making such murders appear as suicide, and suicide itself the same, deplorable.

So go out now and prove yourself to this U.S. Nation and allies by not committing these heinous acts. 

-shame on you for being a lowly coward!

I shun all of you deplorable cowards, I shun you all for eternity. 

.---. 

valente347
valente347

It's particularly disheartening to discover Gen. Pittard's comments on suicide as he sets the whole tone of our conversation about mental health at Fort Bliss.

anonguest7619
anonguest7619

Though I like the essay, I disagree that this is a concrete thing. Rather, this is more of the touchy-feely "we must try harder" stuff.

The *concrete* thing the military can do is change the security clearance questionnaire to exclude depression and sexual assault related PTSD when asking about mental health visits. Or, even better, eliminate that question altogether and allow good leaders to identify those who are cause for concern. As long as security clearance and counseling are linked, soldiers will avoid getting help.


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