Saturday, May 30, 2009

Suicides Temporarily Shut Down Ft. Campbell

by Rocky G. Macy
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

As a former mental health provider at Ft. Campbell, KY, I was saddened, though not necessarily surprised, to learn about the rash of suicides that has plagued the post over recent months. According to news reports this week, the 101st Airborne Division (basically all of Ft. Campbell) has suffered eleven confirmed or suspected suicides recently, including two in the past week.

This week, in an effort to take a breather and examine the problem, and hopefully stem the tide of this horrific dynamic, the base commander, Brigadier General Stephen Townsend, announced a three-day stand-down to focus on the problem and look for solutions. Regarding the rash in suicides, Townsend told his troops, "It's bad for soldiers, it's bad for families, bad for your units, bad for this division - and our army - and our country - and it's got to stop now. Suicides at Ft. Campbell have to stop now!"

Yup. Brigadier General Stephen Townsend has ordered the suicides to stop. That ought to get the job done - after all, the man has a star on each shoulder.

One hundred and fifteen U.S. soldiers took their own lives in 2007. That number rose to 128 in 2008, and this year it is already at 64 and on track to beat last year's total. Sadly, of all the army units, Ft. Campbell is in the lead.

I worked as a mental health provider at Ft. Campbell from 2005 to 2007, so I have some understanding of what is happening. First. like most military units, Ft. Campbell has a shortage of mental health professionals. And even if every slot for social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists was filled, it would still be an uphill struggle to evaluate and monitor every soldier who has gone through the trauma of one, two, three, four, or even five long tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One tour can ruin a marriage and destroy a family. Loneliness and infidelity take their toll both at home and in the combat theatre. One tour can take a happy, well-adjusted young person and return him (or her) with emotional and psychological issues that will impact the veteran for years - or longer. And that's just one tour.

Multiple tours take all of the risks and dangers of one tour and increase them exponentially. If one tour doesn't wreck a family, two very well may. Fathers and mothers return from the desert to discover that their children have grown up and away from them. The parent who had remained at home has become the decision-maker, the go-to person when something needs to be approved or accomplished. It takes months for the family to re-group as it was prior to the deployment, and by the time it does, the next deployment has rolled around.

I've harped on this before, but it needs to be explained again - so bear with me. Numerous deployments are a product of the dishonest way this war has been waged. Bush, Cheney, and Rummy didn't want to institute a draft - because each of the three had clear memories of the social upheaval that resulted from the draft for Vietnam and did not want to see the country get that fired up over their oil war. (They also undoubtedly remembered all of their own artful dodging to keep from going to Vietnam, and did not want to put today's children of privilege in that same predicament.)

So having a draft was out of the question. Bush, Cheney, and Rummy did not want to do anything to create and stoke public resentment to their Middle East misadventure. Where, then, were the troops going to come from to fight their war?

One way was to recruit soldiers from the general population. Recruiting quotas were increased and recruiters were forced to scrape the bottom of society's barrel in order to meet those quotas. The minimum enlistment age was raised to forty-two, and recruiters routinely told marginal applicants how to pass drug exams and falsify other entrance requirements. Steven Green, also a member of the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, was brought into the army with no difficulties, even though the young man had obvious psychological issues - issues that led to the slaughter of an Iraqi family.

The other method was to not let soldiers out of the army when their terms of enlistment expired (a back door draft called "Operation Stop Loss"), and to keep pumping them into the combat zones over and over.

In a line obviously stolen from a social worker, Brigadier General Townsend said, "Suicide is a permanent solution to what is only a temporary problem."

It's not a temporary problem, General, it's a recurring problem. Something has to be done to get these young people off the combat merry-go-round.

General Townsend, you and your brother generals need to step up to the plate and let the Defense Department and the President know that the mental health of your troops is being worn away. The casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are not limited to the battlefields. Many of those brave men and women appear to be fine when they march into the hangars at your base for reunions with their families, but they are often ticking time bombs (or land mines, or IED's) that will suddenly go off weeks, months, or even years after the welcoming bands have played their last happy notes.

Good mental health is not something that can be "ordered" to occur. For our troops to have even a semblance of a chance for a future of good mental health, multiple deployments must come to an end. If these are wars that have to be fought, bring back the draft and share the burden with those who couldn't be bothered to volunteer to serve. And maybe thirty or forty years from now when we are on the verge of some other major military operation, our country will have the leadership of people who actually went to war and understand its reality.

The men and women at Ft. Campbell are in my thoughts and prayers.


BK in MO said...

War has devastating consequences, but the Bush/Cheney regime wanted the American people to have a war while going about their business as usual. This is dishonest and should be illegal. What we have done, in essence, is create an underclass of soldiers, who are under-compensated and under-appreciated. Meanwhile, the rest of us can look the other way and not realize that we are in a war. War demands sacrifice. What are Americans sacrificing? Well, we do have the recession. I'm not an economist, but it stands to reason when most of the GNP is utilized to wage war on two fronts, that domestic production will suffer.
I believe our latest round of wars are wrong. The Iraq war should never have happened, and the Afghanistan war is much like Vietnam: the underlying purpose is not ideological (such as rooting out terrorism) but largely political and tied to the economy. I smell oil in them there hills, just as I did in the Tonkin Gulf. I doubt if anyone would volunteer to fight for oil. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it sure makes me wonder if there isn't some truth to the theory that 9/11 was staged to prepare the American people for a war we didn't want.

Anonymous said...

There have been many other bases, such as Ft. Carson, Colorada, where there have been suicides and other major psychological problems.

The NY Times, a few years ago, had an embedded woman reporter in Afghanistan. She reported that many of the troops at that time had to be maintained on anti-psychotic medications. Those are GIs who wouldn't have successfully made it out of boot camp, five decades ago.