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.