Seven months ago, SPC Sonny Mazon opened my eyes to the tragic link between depression, drugs, incarceration, and suicide in the military community.
I had been so naïve. Of course, during the deployment many of us swapped stories of comrades abusing prescription drugs like Ambien while overseas, and I had a vague sense that this would get worse when my platoon returned home in 2009. Even so, I never expected that almost 2 years after I left the Army I would still be receiving tragic news about my soldiers, their families, and the ending that awaits those who never get the help they need.
Mazon's particular problem was a relatively common one. He suffered from PTSD relating to the death of his best friend PFC Ara Deysie on a combat patrol. Soldiers deal with this kind of intense emotional trauma in different ways, but it is safe to say that not enough of us get the right kind of treatment. Most of us were sometimes angry or sad, and I periodically experienced violent flashbacks.
Only the intervention of a friend convinced me to seek help with a chaplain. Many soldiers bottle up their feelings instead, often with troubling results. One of us joined the French Foreign Legion after separating from the Army. Two more of us were killed when the platoon deployed to Afghanistan again after I left the military in 2010, and Mazon eventually turned to drugs to numb the pain. The rest of his story of domestic violence, incarceration, and suicide may be too horrible for words, but we can't pretend that he was a unique case.
In the midst of this mess, many people are looking for answers. Why didn't Mazon get treatment? Why are there so many soldiers like him who slip through the cracks? How much do we really understand about the link between depression, drug use, imprisonment, and suicide? As long ago as 2009 there was published evidence that veterans are disproportionately represented in prison populations, that substance abuse is the most statistically significant predictive factor in their arrest, and that those who suffer from PTSD are far more likely to commit suicide than we would otherwise expect.
Retired General Peter Chiarelli has become a champion of veteran's mental health issues, and we would do well to heed his call to dramatically increase the amount of research conducted on these problems, and integrate this new knowledge into our treatment and mental health screening for soldiers.
There is also the exciting possibility that improvements in MRI technology could allow us to better identify the structural problems in the brain that might be at the root of some of the mental health issues that combat veterans face after a traumatic brain injury.
But our society's often puerile reaction to discussions about drugs and depression must change if we are going to see any permanent improvements in mental health treatment take root in the at-risk veteran population.
Although we don't do it intentionally, many of us participate in a conspiracy of silence about the reality of drug abuse in this country. We laugh about the cocaine problems of celebrities and petty criminals in shows like "Cops," but aside from being in poor taste, this does nothing to help us understand what is happening when men and women who have served this country honorably disintegrate into a nightmare of sadness, drugs, and pain.
We all need to be more open about the connection between depression and substance abuse, including alcohol. If not, then in a few short years we will have a repeat of the disastrous increase in the number and proportion of homeless and out of work veterans that was seen after Vietnam. Obviously, we would all prefer to talk about the positive side of our veterans' stories, how proud we are of them, the sacrifices they make, and the strength that they show. But sometimes what we actually need is to have an honest conversation about the darker side of the community in order to begin to deal with the problem.
The Army is certainly aware of the magnitude and nature of the issues that face our veterans, but what about the rest of us? We can all do a lot more. God knows that although it's too late to save Sonny Mazon, with the right kind of systemic change there are thousands of soldiers just like him that we might be able to reach in time.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.