February 27, 2009 – The rising and frightening number of suicides and suicide attempts by U.S. combat veterans is a shameful legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For years, the military was reluctant to admit the existence of the problem, but recent events finally have forced the Pentagon to confront it. To its credit, the military seems to have done an about face on the issue. The new-found understanding is welcome, but much more needs to be done to provide useful mental health assistance to veterans and active- duty troops.
A poignant and ultimately hopeful front-page story about Ben Crary by this newspaper’s Lauren Gregory provides an illuminating look at post-traumatic stress disorder and the toll it can take. The young Marine veteran survived combat, but he said the after-effects of war and memories of Iraq almost drove him to suicide. In his case, help was available, and family and friends encouraged him to seek it. His current prognosis is good.
That’s not always the case. Many veterans and active-duty personnel refuse to seek assistance when confronted by mental health issues. That attitude, unfortunately, is a legacy of past military practices. For decades, the military encouraged an independence and self-sufficiency among its members that suggested that an injury to the body was a sacrifice for one’s country and the price of war, but that an injury to the mind is somehow cowardly or a figment of an over-active imagination.
The latter caused many members of the armed forces to avoid treatment. They were afraid, with good reason, that admission of mental fatigue or illness would result in ridicule, and that any mention in one’s military record of a mental problem would end any chance for better assignments or promotion. The horrors of modern war, exacerbated by repeated tours of duty, finally forced the military to address those attitudes.
There was little choice. Recent stories revealed the extent of the problem. The Associated Press reported, for example, that the U.S. Army, which makes up most of the ground forces in the Mideast combat zone, counted seven confirmed suicides in January. Another 17 suspected cases of suicide are being investigated. If 90 percent of the pending cases are confirmed, as they generally are according to Army officials, that would mean 24 suicides in January. By comparison, 11 soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same period.
The problem is extensive. The Veterans Administration reports that about 1,000 veterans a month try to commit suicide and that acts of rage and violence are common in the group. Many victimized by that rage and violence are the wives, children and friends of those veterans.
Help is on the way. In recent months, the Pentagon and civilian military authorities have repeatedly and publicly affirmed that war takes a toll inside the mind as well as on the body. A growing network of providers trained to help those suffering from PTSD and other war-related mental problems is available. The problem is convincing those in need of help to seek it. The long-standing military tradition of “toughing it out” on this sort of problem is hard to overcome.
Indeed, experts say that somewhere between 25 and 38 percent of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health issues, but only about half seek help. Military officials need to redouble efforts to reassure those with mental health problems that they can seek help without stigma. Such help can be a life-saver. Mr. Crary is living testament to that.