Be Very Ashamed

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Megan McCloskey at Stars and Stripes has just run the first of a two part piece on suicide in the army and it’s a ripper. In it, she details what drove Army Specialist Brushaun Anderson to kill himself at a remote firebase in Iraq on New Year’s Day, 2010. I think it should be required reading for leaders at all levels of the Army.

A couple days ago I wrote a post here discussing the stigma of requesting help for PTSD and other mental health concerns in which I said that in my unit (in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003) asking for help was considered weakness. McCloskey’s article shows that despite years of effort and millions of dollars spent trying to understand and stop the soaring suicide rate in the Army, some things haven’t changed.

According to McCloskey’s article,  non-commissioned officers in Anderson’s unit routinely mocked the service’s emphasis on mental health. One sergeant from the unit said that promotions were withheld from soldiers who asked for mental health care.

An Army investigation determined that Anderson was “treated in a cruel, abusive, oppressive and harmful manner.” The investigator, a colonel, said that Anderson’s platoon sergeant, who had previously been admonished by a military judge for humiliating and degrading troops, had “created an ‘environment of maltreatment and abuse’.”

The investigator concluded that the first sergeant and battery commander fostered “unacceptable conditions affecting good order and discipline” in their unit. The colonel investigating and the two-star division commander prescribed non-judicial punishment that would likely have ended the careers of all three soldiers Yet, all of them remain in service. At least one has been promoted. How? The battalion commander worked to lighten the recommended punishment to that of a localized slap on the wrist.

Until failed leaders like those in Specialist Anderson’s platoon, battery and battalion are rocketed out of the service, until leaders at all levels understand that mental health problems aren’t weakness or cowardice or malingering, we will continue to have soldiers slipping away, putting a weapon up to their head and pulling the trigger.

Be ashamed Army. Be very ashamed.