The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



A primary concern

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 4, 2008

After today, we might have a clear idea of which two candidates will be running for president in their respective parties. I hope we find, now or in the coming weeks, a strong candidate who can lead us out of Iraq, because this war is killing us.

By “killing,” I do not mean the damage the war does to our international image or the billions or tax dollars we spend on it. And I say “us” in reference to the military troops from our own families and communities, too often relegated to an alien sphere of society, too seldom conceived of as our neighbors and friends. What I mean is that soldiers from our own communities are killing themselves as a direct result of their time spent, at our government’s behest, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Recent statistics from the Army show that suicide rates among American soldiers have skyrocketed in the past five years. Two thousand one hundred U.S. soldiers tried to commit suicide in 2007, nearly six attempts every day. Back in 2002, before the Iraq War, there were 350 suicide attempts – less than one a day. That six-fold increase over five years has given the Army its highest suicide rate among active soldiers since 1980, when such record keeping began. Traditionally, suicide rates are actually lower during periods of overseas deployment, which is part of what makes the rise so striking and unconscionable.

There are soldiers our age – perhaps you know at least one – who go to Iraq and return to find their lives waiting to be resumed where they left off. Only they, themselves, are irrevocably changed. Their egos splintered, their reflexes razor-sharp, their adrenaline systems unable to shut down, soldiers who faced combat find themselves experiencing hallucinations, sexual impotency and a loss of ability to communicate. They are haunted by depression and flashbacks and find even previously-stable relationships difficult to maintain.

Failed personal relationships are the most common motive for military suicides. Troops are being sent back to Iraq for their second or third consecutive tour of duty (extended to 15 months by the Pentagon last year) with little rest in-between. Our armed services thrust them back into the hell of combat, often failing to diagnose their true affliction: post-traumatic stress disorder. Many times psychiatrists diagnose soldiers with pre-existing personality disorders instead – meaning they were already troubled before their service and their involvement in the war had nothing to do with their current psychological condition.

Several scandals have been documented involving military officers requesting such diagnoses, commanders unwilling to sacrifice potential troops with resources already stretched so thin. Officers also discourage seeking out care in the first place, cultivating a machismo stigma against the “weakness” of psychological support. With time at home stinted and aid services unwilling or unable to help them cope with the horrors of war, is it any wonder troops have trouble sustaining relationships?

Ever since soldiers began returning from combat, officials have lamented the severely under-equipped mental health services of the military. Some efforts have been made by commissions and Congress to improve the care given to returning soldiers. President Bush highlighted the need to help our troops in his State of the Union address. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia introduced new legislation last Thursday aimed at improving the military’s suicide prevention programs.

Such calls for aid draw attention to the problem, but actual improvements require more than money. There is no corps of psychologists waiting in reserve to aid returning and active soldiers. Lowering the suicide rates will require a new stance on the way we treat soldiers – which might, I suggest, involve not going to war in the first place.

Disputing the war’s justification and debating the merits of continued military involvement, however, only addresses the military care issue obliquely. The suicide rates among troops will remain inextricably tied to our involvement in Iraq, of course, but the problem has unfortunately become its own distinct crisis.

Suicide rates among military members are still lower than equivalent demographics among civilians, yet more and more soldiers are turning to suicide. Our nation ignores this problem not just by prolonging the war in Iraq – though that is certainly hurting – but by failing our troops in the care we offer them. Put simply: Our highest authorities, civilian and military, have failed our troops when they needed the country’s help. We have sacrificed our values and reordered our priorities. The need to maintain military presence has superseded concern for the individual soldier.

I want a candidate to emerge today who will make commitment to the mental health of our troops a key platform issue. This needs to be at the forefront of the election season. It goes beyond anti-war messages or schemes to bring troops home. Even if the president ended the war tomorrow, we would see the effects on soldiers for years. We need a clear plan to help those soldiers who gave so much, a path to recovery for our friends and relatives.

We need more than a way out of Iraq – we need a way forward for our troops.

James Dechant hopes you could follow his convoluted train of thought and would like to place blame on Wikipedia and the Internet in general. You can complain about his rambling diatribe by writing him at jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.