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NOTE: The Denver Post editorial "Mental Support for Our Troops" (2 February 09) was republished in my local newspaper (The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton MA) on 17 February 09.
Letters to the Editor
The Denver Post
To the Editor:
Your editorial "Mental Support for Our Troops" (2 February) notes suicides among American troops have surpassed combat deaths for the first time since the Vietnam War, and The Post laudably calls for increased resources to respond to the emotional and psychiatric difficulties of military service in wartime.
The Post un-laudably misses Two Elephants who have been splashing around in America's Bathtub for seven years.
Of our two on-going wars, one was a "liars' and scoundrels' war" (as Congressman Abraham Lincoln called the Mexican War) -- revenge for the 9-11 attacks against a nation which had nothing to do with the 9-11 attacks. The Iraq War also targeted weapons of mass destruction which Saddam Hussein's Iraq did not possess.
To date, 4245 US servicewomen and servicemen have come back to Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped coffins from that war. The comparable number of US flag-draped coffins from the Afghanistan War is 651.
Our new commander-in-chief has expressed his intention to downsize our Iraq commitment and bulk up the war in Afghanistan, as the re-invigorated Taliban makes steady and significant combat and political gains throughout the country, including the heavily fortified capital Kabul.
Across the mountainous and porous border, our anti-terrorism ally Pakistan has just signed a truce with local Taliban-allied chieftains in the Swat Valley, near the capital Islamabad, which turns Swat into an enclave of Sharia (religious) law, and abandons government plans to provide schooling for girls comparable to schooling for boys. Pakistan's army will cease active anti-Taliban operations, and respond militarily only if attacked by Taliban guerrillas.
Into this confused, addled, lethal and wildly expensive meatgrinder -- a cannonball shackled to our drowning U.S. economy -- we continue to toss our neighbors' sons and daughters.
And now we express dismay and shock that these young men and women are ending their own lives at the highest rate in 35 years.
Our soldiers and marines do indeed need more and better mental health resources.
But far more important, our servicemen and women need to be brought home promptly and safeguarded from these ill-advised, naive, arrogant, dubiously lawful schemes.
Stop combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. Bring the boys and girls home now, while they can still reclaim the rest of their young lives in the communities where they enlisted.
A stand-down day to review military suicides is a bandaid. Two foolish, corrupt, ignorant wars are the disease. Ending them is the cure.
SP5 US Army 1969-1971
Army Commendation Medal
The Denver Post (Colorado USA)
Monday 2 February 2009
Mental support for our troops
With the military stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should make sure soldiers are getting the care they deserve.
Suicides among soldiers reached a three-decade high in 2008 — a grim and tearful reminder of the costs of fighting two wars.
The care of our soldiers — at war and when they come home — deserves the full attention of the new administration, especially as plans for an expansion in Afghanistan move forward.
At least 128 soldiers killed themselves last year, Army officials said last week. Another 15 deaths are still being investigated. The suicide rate of soldiers, which includes Army Reserve and National Guard, exceeded that of civilians for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Our military has been stretched too thin as we fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tours of duty are being extended, and soldiers are being asked to go back again and again. And too many soldiers aren't getting the mental health care they need.
Army officials pointed to 15-month deployments to war zones as a contributor to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol abuse and family problems, The Associated Press reported.
The Army says it is focusing on the problem and trying to improve mental health care as it prepares to re-focus on Afghanistan. But it concedes the remoteness of that country makes it more difficult for therapists to reach troops.
The Army said it would create a "stand down," or a day spent focused on evaluating soldiers, along with fostering a treatment-minded culture among troops. But forgive us if that idea seems far too simplistic. The day-to-day horrors of war require more than that.
Fort Carson, just south of Colorado Springs, recently has made efforts to improve its "wounded warrior" program, and has wisely re-shifted much of its thinking on caring for soldiers.
But this has been a protracted engagement, and we're reminded of reports from The Post's David Olinger that show that from 2003 to 2007, nearly 40,000 troops were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Olinger and former Post reporter Erin Emery reported last year that "spending for some pain medication, antidepressants, sleeping pills and even an epilepsy medicine used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries has grown by 62 percent to 400 percent since the Iraq war began."
The reporters found that those records are supported by military mental-health surveys that indicate nearly 20,000 deployed soldiers — more than 12 percent of the fighting force — have taken antidepressants or prescription sleeping pills.
Meanwhile, a report by the Pentagon's inspector general last week found that nearly 33,000 plates for body armor for troops wasn't properly tested and may not provide troops adequate protection. The plates are being recalled. The Army disputes the findings, but has voluntarily withdrawn plates for similar concerns.
If we can't even supply our troops with the needed equipment — remember the poorly armored Humvees? — how can we expect to give them adequate mental health care?
Our troops deserve the best. We urge President Barack Obama to see that they get it. His focus shouldn't be solely on getting the troops home quickly, but on making sure they are adequately cared for during their deployments and upon their return.
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=====The New York Times
Saturday 30 January 2009
Suicides of Soldiers Reach High of Nearly 3 Decades
Suicides among soldiers in 2008 rose for the fourth year in a row, reaching the highest level in nearly three decades, Army officials said Thursday.
At least 128 soldiers killed themselves last year, and the Army suicide rate surpassed that for civilians for the first time since the Vietnam War, according to Army statistics. The suicide count, which includes soldiers in the Army Reserve and the National Guard, is expected to grow; 15 deaths are still being investigated, and the vast majority of them are expected to be ruled suicides, Army officials said.
Including the deaths being investigated, roughly 20.2 of every 100,000 soldiers killed themselves. The civilian rate for 2006, the most recent figure available, was 19.2 when adjusted to match the demographics.
“This is not business as usual,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, who is leading suicide-prevention efforts. “We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse the very disturbing number of suicides we have in the U.S. Army."
The Army did not identify a specific reason for the increase, but officials said 15-month deployments to war zones played a role. These deployments, which have allowed for little time away from the battlefield, have contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol abuse and family problems. Seven suicides took place in Afghanistan and 31 in Iraq.
The most common factors in suicides were financial, personal and legal problems, as well as job-related difficulties, officials said.
Thirty percent of the suicides in the last four years took place during a deployment. Thirty-five percent took place after a deployment. The remaining 35 percent of those who killed themselves had never deployed.
“We all come to the table believing that stress is a factor,” General Chiarelli said.
In 2007, 115 soldiers killed themselves, compared with 106 in 2006.
At a news briefing, the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, said the Army wanted to bolster its efforts to prevent suicide and was prepared to allocate the resources, “human and financial,” to do so. The Army had stepped up its efforts in the last two years as the numbers had begun to climb.
But, Mr. Geren cautioned, there are no easy answers. “Is there a silver bullet out there?” he said. “I’m confident there isn’t.”
The Army said that in the last year it had hired more general practitioners, often the first health care providers to come into contact with soldiers in distress. It also hired 250 more providers of mental health care, and wants to hire an additional 50.
“We are hiring, and we need your help,” said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the surgeon general of the Army.
The Army announced it would conduct a “stand-down,” a day dedicated to recognizing signs of suicidal behavior and ensuring that soldiers get help, even if that means escorting the person to a clinic. The training day will be reinforced by a teaching program that extends from the top ranks to enlisted men and women, with an emphasis on seeking treatment. The Army is also introducing efforts to have chaplains become involved in suicide prevention programs.
Last October, the Army announced it would collaborate with researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in a landmark five-year project to identify the causes of suicide. The study is expected to probe deeply into the role of combat, long deployments, family stress and other factors. Eighty-five of those who committed suicide last year were married.
Veterans’ and mental health advocates have been critical of the Army, saying it has been too slow to recognize and treat the tide of soldiers struggling with mental health problems after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Despite some progress, problems remain widespread, the advocates say. There are still far too few providers of mental health and substance abuse services, the Army is often reluctant to send soldiers to civilian therapists off bases, and mental health screening remains perfunctory, they say. At the same time, a warrior culture that discourages treatment persists.
“The suicide numbers released today come as no surprise to veterans who have experienced firsthand the psychological toll of war,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for veterans. “Since the Iraq war began, suicide rates and other signs of psychological injury, like marital strain and substance abuse, have been increasing every year.”
As they prepare to shift more troops to Afghanistan this year, Army officials say they are focusing on how to improve mental health there. The challenges are greater because the fighting takes place in more remote places and it is difficult for mental health therapists to reach soldiers. “We want to make sure we get ahead of it,” Colonel Ritchie said.
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Labels: Army suicide rate Iraq Afghanistan