Suicides among Active Duty Personnel at an All Time High

By: John Waltz

Special Assignment Writer




Near the end of a long deployment the thoughts of coming home fill your mind and your heart yearns for the familiarity of loved ones. Once getting home it all seems great until you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and realizing you had the most horrific nightmare of your life. A nightmare so vivid you thought you were back on a patrol in a foreign country. The smells, the sights and the tastes are all there just like the day it happened. The days keep passing by and you start to isolate yourself, withdrawing from those around you. Every time you go out in public you are on guard watching everything around you. The slightest sounds startles you and you have that feeling you are coming under fire. Your old friends call and ask if you want to go fishing but you tell them that you are just not feeling it. This soldier has no clue what is going on to him but can tell something is not right. What he is suffering from is a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a recognized disorder by the American Psychological Association using the DSM IV.


Without the adequate screening needed and the education about PTSD before a discharge a soldier has no clue what they are suffering from. Many times they go on for long periods of time questioning their sanity. For the family they usually do not recognize the alarms going off when their loved one starts acting different and do not have sufficient knowledge of the disorder. They just believe that it is a normal reaction to serving in war. Eventually many veterans turn to drugs and/or alcohol to solve their problems and unfortunately this is a recipe for disaster as many end up committing suicide.


There are many misleading beliefs about PTSD and there is a major stigma that surrounds the condition. Some believe that it is imaginary and is a way for a veteran to get free money from the government. It is a real illness and a debilitating illness if not treated soon enough or properly. The number of individuals that are coming back from the current war that have been diagnosed with PTSD is one out of three. Add this in with multiple deployments and you are creating an unstable environment susceptible to mental illness. With a large influx of individuals this is putting the Department Veteran Affairs (VA) in a bind which was already plagued with many problems before the current war.  


One of the major problems with the VA is that they are under spending their budget. In 2005 they spent only $100 million out of $200 million of their budget and in 2006; they estimate that out of $200 million budgeted only $158 million was spent. Yet, the VA is understaffed which largely contributes to this figure. The other areas that are deficient are the required research and knowledge of PTSD to properly treat it. Testifying on September 28, 2006 before the house veterans’ health subcommittee Army Col. Charles Hoge who is one of the leading researchers on PTSD has stated that much more research is needed because there are major gaps in the studies completed. The areas that need the most attention are in standard psychotherapy and medications, long term treatment and recovery issues and the impact on deployment. So, while the VA is scratching their head at what to do many innocent lives are ended in the meanwhile. 


Our country is in a habit of jumping into wars before really assessing the aftermath. They are not looking at the fact that the system is already over burdened and near the breaking point and if we can not accommodate our service members after the war, we should not go at all. In Congress Representative Michael Michaud (D) highlighted this by saying, “the VA is far short of fulfilling it commitments, and clearly our oversight will have to be more rigorous.” Representative Henry Brown (R) agrees with this saying, “When our young men and women serve their nation, they give their all, Congress expects those entrusted to care for them to do the same.”


Today’s active duty members are committing suicide at staggering rates regardless of a Congressional order which mandates the military to evaluate the mental health of our deployed troops. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), the numbers show that 1 out of 300 active duty service members actually see a mental clinician before shipping out. Once in country, troops with unstable mental issues are kept on the front lines but are doped up on anti-depressants and other drugs but are given little if any counseling. This has helped fuel the suicide rates among the troops serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq. To further inflame this issue, out of 11 service members who committed suicide in Iraq between 2004 and 2005 were kept on duty despite the fact that they were showing obvious signs of mental agony. In at least seven of these cases, the service member’s chain of command was aware of the problem which is according to investigative records and interviews with family. 


There is an estimated 378,000 troops who have served more than one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. These recurring tours are severely increasing the number of individuals who have PTSD and other mental disorders. “The Department of Defense is in the business of keeping people Deployable,” said Cathleen Wiblemo, deputy director for health care for the American Legion. “What the consequences are, we haven’t begun to see.”


After discharge former service members with PTSD, who have not been informed of the symptoms, begins to think they are mentally unstable and the world would be a better place if they didn’t exist. Due to this there have been too many suicides by suffering veterans. There has to be an educational campaign started for not only the veterans but the public to relieve the stigma of PTSD and suicide. The ability to openly discuss these issues will improve the community support accessible to veterans who ponder suicide and in the end increase the chances of those at risk will be given the care they require. Ileana Arias Ph.D., Director of the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “We want to change the norms about suicide so that individuals do not feel any hesitation to access whatever services and resources are available in the event that they start to experience suicidal ideation.”


There are some bills in both the House and Senate that will help curb this tragic trend among veterans and we ask for your full support. One piece of legislation that needs to be passed is the “Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act of 2006” (S. 3984/HR 1588). This bill provides wide-ranging benefits for veterans of multiple eras to ensure that no veteran is left behind. To name a few of the benefits, one area it focuses on is extending the eligibility for readjustment counseling services for Vietnam-era veterans. Requires that the DOD will assist the VA with PTSD and other mental health-related data collection; substance use disorder questions in pre- and post-deployment screens and related treatment protocols; and routine preventative maintenance intervention for returning members of the Armed Forces. Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop model programs to address mental health disorders prevalent among veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Requires counseling for immediate family members of disabled veterans and Armed Forces personnel killed in action. To educate the public and make them more aware of the illness this bill will create a National Steering Committee on PTSD Education. This legislation will ensure to address deficiencies in compensation and pension examinations with regard to PTSD. It will also require development of criteria for determining which medical conditions are likely associated with PTSD and when secondary service-connection should be granted for those conditions. Last it will also provide for an outreach program to enhance PTSD awareness.


The other proposed bill is the, “Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” (S. 3808/H.R 5771) which directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program for reducing the incidence of suicide among veterans. If you are not aware Joshua Omvig came home from an 11 month tour of duty in Iraq in November of 2004.  According to Josh’s family, the debriefing consisted of only 15 minutes of, “welcome home, and got any problems? No? Great well let us know if anything changes… see ya!” As usual his family knew something was odd but did not know the extent of difficulty he was having. Unfortunately on December 22, 2005 he took his own life. Please check out the website his family has to remember him at him in the next week and all those that have taken their life because of reckless policies and oversights.


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