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Why Army Suicides Continued to Rise in May, and What We Can Do

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The news gets more and more troubling when it comes to Army suicides, which continue on a record pace, according to the latest report. March and April saw 13 suicides each. May saw 17 suicides.

The Army is taking the issue much more seriously, trying to stop the trend. Most notably, Fort Campbell ordered a three-day stand-down for suicide prevention training. And, the Pentagon is trying to offer better counseling for those soldiers who feel like they're going to break down. But, obviously, the military alone can't do everything.

While a lot of attention has been paid to increasing counseling even more, and removing the stigma that troops attach to depression as a weak trait, that's just treating the problem after the fact. The root causes of combat stress leading to suicide are three-fold, mostly out of the hands of our generals, and therefore must be addressed by the Federal government.

First, it isn't just the stress in the field, it's the stress of having to do multiple tours, with very little time at home.

Imagine that you're in the Army and you do a year in Iraq, come home for under a year, are redeployed for another year, come home for a short period, and are sent out again. It's like being in a revolving door moving at supersonic speed, and just when you think you're out and can relax, they throw you back in. Eventually, you don't know which way you're going, or how to make it all stop. For some, sadly, taking their own life becomes the answer.

That's why VoteVets.org long supported the Dwell-Time legislation in the Senate, originally introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE). That bill simply says that a servicemember gets as much time at home as he or she gets in the field. That has traditionally been how we rotate troops, but because we were faced with two wars and a smaller, all-volunteer force, we put an unreasonable deployment burden on our troops.

President Obama phasing out Stop Loss is a huge move, and will help, so troops aren't kept active, involuntarily, after their commitment. But the Dwell Time bill is crucial and it needs to be passed and signed, ASAP.

Secondly, we need to much better transition troops from war-life to civilian life, especially when they're in a position to have to redeploy.

More or less, you're on your own when you come home, but still in the military, specifically when you're in the National Guard or Reserves, when you essentially have six months off from any duty when you return from a mobilization. Yes, there is some counseling available, but there isn't any comprehensive program out there to help you with your transition back. And, while most Americans are extremely gracious to our troops, most don't know a person who served, personally. Therefore, they can't relate to what our troops go through as they come and go to and from war. They cannot help troops bridge that gap, mentally, from the field to the homefront (and the disorientation associated with it) no matter how much they care for our troops.

This isn't an area for a charity to handle -- full, comprehensive transitioning must have the full power of the Federal government behind it.

We especially need to focus on ensuring that military doctors and the VA properly diagnose and treat PTSD. VoteVets.org and the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) uncovered an extremely disturbing case of the VA Center in Temple, TX last year. In that case, there was talk of not giving veterans a proper PTSD diagnosis, because of the cost of having to pay disability to those veterans. Then, Mark Benjamin at Salon.com uncovered an extremely similar case involving doctors at Fort Carson, under pressure to deny soldiers PTSD. That needs to end.


Third, the band-aid of drugs is not an answer.

Last year, VoteVets.org worked with TIME magazine to break the story about our Medicated Army. One of our own members, Chris LeJeune, talked in frank detail about being given anti-depressants in the field, and how they're essentially given out like candy, so we can simply have as many bodies in the field as we need.

Anyone who knows anything about anti-depressants knows that they're supposed to be used for those with a legitimate chemical imbalance, or those in therapy who need a temporary bridge. They're not supposed to be used as happy pills for those dealing with PTSD who are constantly forced to reengage what sets off that PTSD. That may mask some symptoms, but inside the mind, it allows PTSD, stress, and depression to continue to grow, exponentially.

Again, the military is getting better at offering real counseling to those in the field. However, as we tragically saw just a short time ago with the killings at Camp Liberty, we have to do a better job at prevention. And, at the very least, if there is someone for which combat stress is a problem, we should not hesitate to send those troops home. Keeping them armed with a weapon, dealing with a 360 degree battlefield does not do our military well, or the civilians in the lands we're fighting well.

None of this is to say that the military is ignoring the issue, or that the blood of suicide victims lies on their hands. But, we have to do more. And, it cannot focus on only treating problems when they happen. Nor can we pretend that civilians in Washington don't bear some of the burden here, who still need to do more to lessen the burden we've placed on our men and women in uniform. We have to focus on giving the military and VA every tool we possibly can to help face the root causes of PTSD, combat stress, and depression, to prevent those things from fomenting.

I hope we do, and I hope that the string of bad news on this issue soon comes to an end.

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