For nearly a decade, I've been researching and writing about the issue of non-hostile deaths in the military. Early on in my research, I would get upset at the information provided by our troops and their families. Their revelations painted a picture of a dysfunctional military culture that allows medical and legal malpractice, as well as violent crime, to thrive and exist. As a result, I naively reached out to every genre of media available, imploring them to bring the looming crisis of military deaths to the public consciousness. Nobody ever found it newsworthy; an apathy that made me confused and at times livid.
I remember calling my friend Hunter Glass to vent my frustration. In his efforts to help me make sense of it all, he spoke some very prophetic words:
"Well, everyone will wake up one day. It's just like putting bad fuel in your car day after day. You may get away with it for years, but one day, the damage to your engine will get so bad that it shuts down."
Glass, is a respected detective, consultant and lecturer on the topic of crime and security threats in the military. He travels constantly, speaking to citizens and law enforcement officials trying to prepare us for the inevitable dangers making its way to our society as the war comes home. With the exception of reaching Dan Rather and a few others, his message has fell on deaf ears.
Oscar-winning writer/director, Paul Haggis, also began publicly addressing the fact that we need to be thinking about the long term effects of war when his 2007 movie "In the Valley of Elah" was released by Warner Brothers. Despite stellar casting of Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Josh Brolin, Elah, fell largely on deaf ears too.
Now, we finally have the Veteran's Administration admitting that America is losing a veteran to suicide (also classified as non-hostile death) every 80 minutes. This is indeed a public health crisis of limitless repercussions that stretch far beyond the deceased. There is little doubt, the children, wives and parents of these veterans will need assistance dealing with the tragedy, emotional trauma and stigma of suicide. If this were any other form of widespread death, the entire country would be shouting the words "pandemic," with media and government officials advising citizens of the best ways to protect themselves.
"The Center for a New American Security" released a policy brief in October 2011 titled "Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide" that has researchers and administrators at military medical facilities buzzing with activity. The brief examines the phenomenon of military suicide and the preventative measures currently in place. It goes even further by pointing out the problems with these existing measures and offers solutions for improvement. However, as the brief states, one of the most elusive aspects to suicide prevention is removing the stigma of mental illness.
There is much confusion as to why the stigma persists despite massive efforts aimed to remove it. Even worse, the efforts are ultimately short-sighted, because the stigma reaches much further than a service members unit and military career. Right now, insurance companies and civilian employers are allowed to ask about the health backgrounds of its applicants. It is naïve to assume the decision makers involved would not hold PTSD or TBI against veterans. In the outside world, there must be laws to protect our veterans from discrimination for having mental health issues.
Another point of confusion is the fact that as much as 50% of the troops who take their own lives have never deployed. So if the cause of suicide is not PTSD or TBI, then what is going on? This question brings to mind another major issue not getting the attention it deserves; the possibility that some of these "suicides" are actually "murders."
Let's face it, with a veteran allegedly committing suicide every 80 minutes, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that at least a small percentage of these deaths are in fact homicides. With such an overwhelming suicide crisis in our midst, investigators may automatically assume every unattended death is just one more suicide. Homicide is not mentioned in the brief, yet in July 2011, the Inspector General of the Department of Defense established the creation of the Violent Crimes Division. Their press release states:
DoD IG Establishes Violent Crimes Division. The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has established a new division that will evaluate DoD and military service criminal investigative policies, programs, and training focused on violent crimes including murder, suicide, sexual assaults, robbery, child abuse, and aggravated assault.
Although the DoD has not openly admitted to the possibility that some of the alleged suicides could indeed be homicides, the creation of the Violent Crimes Division clearly indicates a high level of concern for the way murders and suicides are investigated by calling for an evaluation of the policies.
While writing the book "Murder In Baker Company" I was made aware of a three-year investigation conducted by Congressman Frank Pallone (NJ) and former Congressman Dave Levy (NY) to recognize deficiencies and correct the findings of flawed military death investigations. The two congressmen presented their investigative report on September 12, 1996 to the Subcommittee on Personnel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I included a copy of it in the exhibits section of my book because the issues it addresses are still going on today. The lengthy report clearly outlines the dangers of investigators and medical examiners utilizing a psychological autopsy, or psychological profile, as it is known today, to determine the likelihood of suicide. Their concerns for the accuracy of the psychological profile were summed up as follows:
"Psychological profiling as is currently being utilized in military psychological autopsies is only as good as the information provided to the profiler by criminal investigators who have performed a thorough investigation. If, in fact, a DoD investigator is misusing information, misquoting witnesses, and is deliberately or unknowingly misdirecting the profiler, the psychological autopsy is irretrievably corrupted."
The Pallone and Levy presentation also requested a "board of investigative review" be established to handle conflicting medical, technical and investigative findings presented by surviving military families. But the request was to no avail. The DoD maintains the final word on whether military investigations have been carried out properly. In other words, it has the privilege of policing itself and answers to nobody.
There is also the issue of the "51% rule" for determining suicide. The 51% rule basically means that if 51% of the evidence collected in a death investigation suggests suicide, then "suicide" can be the official cause of death and the remaining 49% of evidence, ignored - evidence that may indicate homicide. This method is used in both civilian and military sectors.
To make it all even more preposterous, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory or "USACIL," which is the military's premier crime lab, is under heavy scrutiny for systematic botching and falsification of evidence testing. Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and Senator Chuck Grassley (IA) wrote a letter in May 2011, to Inspector General Gordon Heddell of the DoD imploring him to establish an independent entity to investigate. In the letter, the senator's stated:
"The failure to address these issues in a timely manner could damage the Nation's trust in the military justice system."
Recent reports of prosecutions relating to theft rings and corruption among troops of all branches and ranks add to the belief that murder in such an environment is also highly probable. The idea of preventing "damaged trust" is too little, too late for many military families who don't believe their deceased loved ones took their own life. Kimberly Stahlman and Tracy Shue, widows of Colonel Mike Stahlman (USMC) and Colonel Philip Shue (USAF) are not waiting for the bureaucrats to take action. They are taking their message of injustice and the need for a system of checks and balances in military death investigations to the American people and have established "The Stahlman-Shue Bill of Rights for Bereaved Military Families" to insure investigations are accurate and that the nation's military families have a voice in the process. Right now, our society is twisting in a wind of confusion about the death toll. But it's not necessary. By allowing our veterans and their families to be heard, we may finally get to the bottom of all the questions plaguing this dire crisis.
Pay attention people, the military engine is knocking loudly.