It was a confluence of many issues coming together at once last week, but the mental health of our Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans was all over the news. The Associated Press announced that active duty military suicides hit its highest level on record in 2007, 119 soldiers dead. See the AP story at: http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/M/MILITARY_SUICIDES?SITE=CADIU&SECTION;=HOME&TEMPLATE;=DEFAULT
With Memorial Day, this issue got more play than usual, including some very heart wrenching call ins from family members of some of the victims on NPR On Point with Tom Ashbrooke, week in the news. See http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2008/05/20080530_a_main.asp The Suicide discussion begins in the last 10 minutes of the show.
To round out the issues, the beginning of the general election campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain has sharpened the focus on the Iraq war. This is especially true because of McCain standing with President George Bush against expanding veteran scholarship benefits. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24805581/ McCain and Bush claim that the proposed scholarship plan for Vets would hurt the military because it would encourage soldiers to leave the service after only three years.
One of the most disturbing scandals of the Bush Administration has been their continuing shoddy treatment of both active duty troops and veteran benefits. But the issue of mental health is perhaps an area where the focus on what is wrong with our current treatment of soldiers and Vets comes into the clearest focus.
When the United States invaded Iraq, defeated the formal Iraqi military and deposed Saddam Hussein, the conflict there went from the type of job for which we trained our soldiers, defense and military conquests, to a police action, a war of occupation. The United States does not have in its DNA to be an occupying country. Occupying a country has been the role of the bad guys: the Germans in Europe during World War II, the Russians in Afghanistan. That is not what we are supposed to be doing, not what we train our soldiers to do, not what the 400 year immigration to the Free World has been about.
The mental health issues facing occupying troops will be different than those who are actively engaged in fighting a definable enemy, with clear cut battles, front lines. In Iraq, there is no definable battle, no tangible goals to achieve, just bullets flying and random roadside bombs. In the Onpoint Memorial Day Podcast, the story is told of Alissa Rubin’s (Deputy Baghdad Bureau Chief for the New York Times) ride in a military transport out of Iraq, with one sole coffin in the rear of the plane.
http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2008/05/20080526_a_main.asp The soldier in that coffin was killed by a roadside bomb while on his way to a memorial service for two other soldiers who were also killed by roadside bombs.
That type of ironic danger, the totally unpredictable moment when the world will go from calm to death, creates an emotional toll that can’t be overstated. These issues don’t just effect enlisted men, but also reach into the officer corps. The soldier suicide documented in the story from the June 4, issue of the Huntington Post was a major- a major who killed himself as he was set to deploy to his third tour in this amorphous combat zone the Bush Administration likes to call the War on Terror. Click here for the story of Major Lance Waldrof. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-mitchell/another-shocking-vet-suic_b_105255.html
My brain injury advocacy began at a time when the Brain Injury Association was my beacon. I remember hours spent in committee meetings, debating the words of our Mission Statement for the Brain Injury Association of Wisconsin. The Brain Injury Association’s mission statement to this day contains these simple words:
Creating a better future through brain injury prevention, research, education and advocacy.
The path of advocacy begins with Prevention.
Death is part of a war. Combat related stress is part of war. Brain injury is part of war. PTSD and other emotional costs are part of war. The only way to eliminate these risks, is Peace. The time has come to prevent death, brain injury, combat stress and PTSD. The time has come to save our brave and capable troops from a war of occupation, a war that no American soldier should have ever been forced to fight. We are not fighting a War on Terror. We are simply terrorizing our bravest men.