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november/december 2009

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Force Readiness


Suicide rates in the active military and among veterans are on the rise. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) continues at epidemic proportions, and under-diagnosed traumatic brain injury (TBI) ensures a future of pain for veterans and their families. Homelessness and incarceration await too many of our returning troops. 

The Department of Defense assures us that new research initiatives will be funded to find out how to address the rising suicide rates in the military. Studies continue to investigate the causes and treatment of MST, TBI, PTSD, and all the substances used to self-medicate the many symptoms that come with each.

To quote Tom Berger: “In today’s military, Force Readiness always trumps medical command, regardless of the mental health of the troops.” But Force Readiness requires maintenance. Consider the maintenance of all the components sent to the battlefield: Tanks, rifles, battleships, and planes are operated by humans, either remotely or in the theater of operation. The need for operational responsiveness requires that all human and mechanical components be in tip-top shape. Mental health also is mission critical, especially in this era of multiple deployments. 

Our young men and women are dying for want of knowing. Consider the rising suicide rate among our soldiers as the “canary in the coal mine”—a warning of imminent disaster. Data from the Army suggest that the most sophisticated assets on the field (our soldiers) find themselves compelled to kill themselves to stop a pain they don’t understand, either while deployed or upon returning home. 

There were 177 reported active-duty Army suicides from January 1-September 30, 2009. Of these, 116 have been confirmed, and 61 are pending determination of manner of death. For all of 2008, there were 129 confirmed suicides. 

This rising suicide rate, coupled with an under-reported incidence of substance abuse (a by-product of self-medicating the symptoms of PTSD), is indicative of a culture that discourages ongoing and effective utilization of mental health services. There is a culture within the military that continues to harass and marginalize our brothers- and sisters-in-arms who take advantage of mental health services.

The solution, in the military, and often in our larger society, is to blame the person exhibiting symptoms. Currently we are counting and studying them when they are found dead. The time has come to carefully consider how to restructure the perception of those in command toward those who would benefit from using mental health services. Utilization of mental health services should be seen as a normal part of training, on the same level as ensuring that equipment is clean and operational.   

Get involved. Reach out to others and start the conversation. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to returning veterans, to other members of the military, and to other veterans. 

Leadership in the military can and must make this cultural change. The soldier who seeks mental health must be seen as a soldier taking the mission seriously and contributing to Force Readiness. Seeking mental health services early must be seen as a sign of responsible maintenance, not a career-ender.



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