"If those prove true, more soldiers will have killed themselves than died in combat last month. According to Pentagon statistics, there were 16 U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in January."
In fact, the Army has seen a rise in suicide every year for the past four years. To combat the problem, the service has created a "battle-buddy" program, which is basically the buddy system for suicide, but this has turned out to be as ineffective as you might have thought it would be.
In 2005, in testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee, the Army’s surgeon general placed the blame squarely on the troops. "That’s still part of our culture: Real men don’t see [mental health counselors]…" said Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley. "I would like to see a culture that resets the force mentally." Macho, tough guy culture was killing troops, but it seems a pretty safe assumption that this culture had been with the Army longer than its suicide problem. I don't remember the Army having a previous reputation as being a place for sharing and emotional support. Clearly, this "real men" culture -- which, of course, includes real women -- may be aggravating the problem, but it couldn't possibly be the cause.
For their part, the Army seems at a loss to explain the real cause of the suicides. "This is terrifying," Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard told CNN. "We do not know what is going on." She speculated that maybe it was winter blahs.
"There is more hopelessness and helplessness because everything is so dreary and cold," she said.
"But Platoni said she sees the multiple deployments, stigma associated with seeking treatment and the excessive use of anti-depressants as ongoing concerns for mental-health professionals who work with soldiers," CNN reported.
Now we're getting someplace.
"Unfortunately, I don't find [the rise in suicides] very surprising," John Soltz, an Iraq war vet and founder of VoteVets.org, told MSNBC's Tamron Hall. He said that, of the some 160,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, "twenty thousand of them are medicated on different things like Prozac and Zoloft."
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, Soltz said, wasn't considered seriously enough and, if a soldier does complain of mental or emotional stress, Army doctors will "just give you a pill and send you back to combat."
In a June TIME magazine piece titled "America's Medicated Army" journalist Mark Thompson spoke to a service member about his experience in Iraq. "You don't always know who the bad guys are. When you search someone's house, you have it built up in your mind that these guys are terrorists, but when you go in, there's little bitty tiny shoes and toys on the floor -- things like that started affecting me a lot more than I thought they would," said Sergeant Christopher LeJeune. "It's not easy for soldiers to admit the problems that they're having over there for a variety of reasons. If they do admit it, then the only solution given is pills." LeJeune says he was given the antidepressant Zoloft and the antianxiety drug clonazepam.
Looking at the warnings, this seems like an insane combination. Zoloft warnings include, "You may have thoughts about suicide when you first start taking an antidepressant, especially if you are younger than 24 years old." Meanwhile, clonazepam users are warned, "People who have underlying depression should be closely monitored while taking clonazepam, especially if they are at risk for attempting suicide."
In May of 2006, the Hartford Courant did an investigation of the military's drug prescription practices and found "a growing number of mentally troubled service members who are being kept in combat and treated with potent psychotropic medications -- a little-examined practice driven in part by a need to maintain troop strength."
Among the paper's findings:
-Antidepressant medications with potentially serious side effects are being dispensed with little or no monitoring and sometimes minimal counseling, despite FDA warnings that the drugs can increase suicidal thoughts.
-Military doctors treating combat stress symptoms are sending some soldiers back to the front lines after rest and a three-day regimen of drugs -- even though experts say the drugs typically take two to six weeks to begin working.
-The emphasis on maintaining troop numbers has led some military doctors to misjudge the severity of mental health symptoms.
If John Soltz's numbers are correct, these conditions are true for 12.5% of troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Army isn't tracking this at all. The TIME article tells us, "At a Pentagon that keeps statistics on just about everything, there is no central clearinghouse for this kind of data, and the Army hasn't consistently asked about prescription-drug use, which makes it difficult to track." In fact, TIME tells us:
Military families wonder about the [Army's reliance on prescription drugs], according to Joyce Raezer of the private National Military Family Association. "Boy, it's really nice to have these drugs," she recalls a military doctor saying, "so we can keep people deployed." And professionals have their doubts. "Are we trying to bandage up what is essentially an insufficient fighting force?" asks Dr. Frank Ochberg, a veteran psychiatrist and founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Given everything we know about the use of psychotropic drugs to medicate soldiers, it seems amazing that few would make the connection with the rising suicide rates. But admitting the connection would've meant an admission of failure by the Bush administration -- something they just didn't do. The military was "completely overextended by the Bush administration," said Soltz, adding that he hoped the Obama administration would do a better job of addressing these issues.
That hope should be shared by most of us, since it seems pretty clear that we're killing our own troops in an attempt to keep them in the field.