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Friday, August 17, 2007

Army Suicide Problem Nothing New

Soldier grieves

In December of 2003, the Baltimore Sun ran a headline -- "Army's Suicide Rate has Outside Experts Alarmed." In that article, we were told, "A report by a 12-member team of military and civilian mental health professionals dispatched to Iraq in October to evaluate mental health of soldiers is expected to be released after the holidays." Good news, something was being done.

"After the holidays" turned out to be the end of March of 2004, when Stars and Stripes ran the headline, "Suicide Report Makes Army Improve." That story reported the Army taking "swift steps to improve mental health services for troops in Iraq and Kuwait" and that it would "send in behavioral health experts and improve logistics to get antidepressants and sleeping pills to combat troops immediately."

Now we see the headline, more than three years later, "Army Suicides Highest in 26 Years." Not surprisingly, a new Army Suicide Event Report (ASER) notes that "there was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and number of days deployed" in theater.

"This new report only confirms what we veterans have been saying for years," writes Paul Rieckhoff, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He tells us "Soldiers and Marines who have deployed to Iraq more than once have a 50% higher rate of combat stress," that "90% of military psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers reported no formal training or supervision in the recommended PTSD therapies," and that "VA officials have admitted that
waiting lists render mental health and substance abuse care 'virtually inaccessible.'" You have to wonder what things were like before the Army made all of its improvements.

Rieckhoff also writes that "this report does not even include the unknown number of military personnel that have committed suicide after they have left the military's payrolls." No one tracks these numbers.

In March of this year President Bush, embarrassed by reports of unforgiveable conditions at Walter Reed in particular and the Veterans Administration in general, called on Bob Dole and Donna Shalala to put together recommendations for improving care for vets. "I am concerned that our soldiers and their families are not getting the treatment that they deserve, having volunteered to defend our country," Bush said as he announced the commission. "Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration, I'm confident by the Congress, and we will address problems quickly."

Kind of sounds like he planned to get right on it when the recommendations came back, doesn't it? Yeah, not so much. When the Dole-Shalala report came out in July, AP reported, "White House press secretary Tony Snow said that Bush would not be acting immediately on any of the recommendations. Rather, he said that the panel's ideas would likely be integrated with other ongoing efforts to improve health care and overall treatment of returning soldiers." The president, barely able to contain his lack of enthusiasm, called the recommendations "interesting."

Bush blew them off. Nothing has happened with the recommendations since. Allow me to blow my own horn here, but I called it. Say what you like about him, but President Bush is anything but unpredictable. When Bush is given the opportunity to do the right thing, you'll never lose money betting he won't take it.

"It has been hurry up and wait for the results of this commission report and now the White House is telling our vets to wait even longer," said Sen. Patty Murray of Bush's disinterest in pursuing the report's recommendations. Paul Rieckhoff's assessment is harsher.

"There should be no more excuses," he writes. "Every day that the president delays, more troops will die as a result of a flawed military and veterans healthcare system."

The problem has been ongoing since 2003, for chrissake, and since the problem was first identified, it's gotten much, much worse. Veterans and their families deserve better. Suicides, even when they're so clearly a result of war, are not honored by the military. They receive no hero's funeral. There's more than one type of collateral damage.

President Bush is constantly asking us to pray for the troops -- this is what passes for some sort of solution. Call it faith-based suicide prevention. And all the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, children, friends, and communities who wake up one day to a huge unpatchable hole in their lives, I guess we're supposed to pray for them too. That's the fix. Prayer is pretty much all the president has to offer. And all he seems interested in offering.


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