Friday, February 6, 2009

Casualties of War

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

The Defense Department has announced that at least 24 members of the United States Army committed suicide during the month of January. That number exceeds the total of all U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. When asked what gives, multiple generals have sputtered that they don't know, but they're sure gonna find out!

Which means, of course, that the problem is going to be relegated to committees, workshops, special trainings, and other mind-numbing steps that will have minimal impact on the actual problem - and kick it on down the road for a couple of years.

So just what is the actual problem?

Suicides in the military, not just the army, have been a growing phenomenon ever since our troops went to the Middle East in 2003. The military was quick to point out that only one-third of January's army suicides had formerly been in the war zones, and another one-third were there at the time of their self-demise. That leaves one-third with no connection to the war - no connection other than they were probably on deck for a combat tour sometime in the near future.

The military was also eager to note that sometimes these deaths appeared to be the result of relationship issues, leaving the impression that those are not combat-related. That statement is deceptive. Most of the suicides were young people (as reported by the military), and young people are often in young relationships, or marriages, with young families. It is a stressful time of life.

A deployment in the army is usually a minimum of twelve months, and they have recently been as long as eighteen months or more. One deployment can be a very aggresssive factor in destabilizing or ending a marriage, especially an untested one. There are long distance disagreements over money and child-rearing, issues associated with shifting roles, jealousy, distrust, and infidelity both at home and in the war zone. That's all from just one deployment - some members of the army have done three, four, and five deployments. Sometimes couples learn how to manage the pressures of deployments, and sometimes they don't.

When the deployment ends more problems emerge. The kids have learned that the parent who remained at home is the "go to" person when a decision needs to be made. The one who remained at home has assumed complete management of the family, and it is often tough to let go of that responsibility. It is not unusual for a soldier who has been sleeping alone on a small cot or bed for twelve months - being constantly on edge and listening for the sound of in-coming - to wake up panicked in the middle of the night when he or she realizes that there is someone else in the bed. The "fight or flight" instinct takes over, often with the soldier lashing out physically at the bed partner. The physical and emotional abuse of family members can be, and often is, a direct consequence of combat stress.

The American Medical Association's Archive of Internal Medicine said in March of 2007 that almost one in three veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who sought medical treatment at the VA were diagnosed with mental health problems. There are others who need mental health services but are not seeking treatment. Unfortunately, some leaders in the military perpetuate the myth that those who seek treatment for mental issues are weak, and consequently many who need those services feel pressured to "man up" and shut up.

So yes, the war is playing a significant role in the climbing suicide rates. We will officially learn that after a couple of years of research and several long-term studies. We will learn that after the war is over and the pressing need for warm bodies eases up. We will learn that after hundreds more have needlessly died.

These young people, like those shot dead in the desert, are truly casualties of war.

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