I've talked before about troops' and veterans' suicides and the looming mental health crisis facing those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers in today's new military report are a bleak reminder that this problem isn't going away. In fact, it is growing. According to the Army Suicide Event Report (ASER), 2006 marks the highest rate of military suicides in 26 years, and more than a quarter of those troops killed themselves while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of ninety-nine U.S. soldiers killed themselves last year.
This new report only confirms what we veterans have been saying for years:
Our troops are facing serious mental health problems, and they aren't getting the treatment they need. At least one-in-three Iraq veterans and one-in-nine Afghanistan veterans will face a mental health issue like depression, anxiety, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). About 25% of those who committed suicide had "a history of at least one psychiatric disorder."
Longer, repeated tours are increasing the risks. Soldiers and Marines who have deployed to Iraq more than once have a 50% higher rate of combat stress. This new study reports that suicide is closely linked to long combat deployments, and that multiple deployments may also be a risk factor.
The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs aren't ready to cope with the problem. 90% of military psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers reported no formal training or supervision in the recommended PTSD therapies, and there is a general shortage of trained mental health professionals in the military. And even VA officials have admitted that
waiting lists render mental health and substance abuse care "virtually inaccessible."
And this report does not even include the unknown number of military personnel that have committed suicide after they have left the military's payrolls. People like CPL Jefferey Lucey are not even counted in this report. The number of veterans in that category is not even counted by the military or the VA--and is probably much higher.
Anyone who remembers the post-Vietnam era knows that these numbers, scary as they are, are just the tip of the iceberg. But we can learn from history, and we can prevent another generation of veterans from suffering as the Vietnam generation did.
The president knows what must be done. The recent report from the Dole-Shalala Commission laid it all out for him. The Commission delivered six clear recommendations that should be implemented immediately. There should be no more excuses. Every day that the president delays, more troops will die as a result of a flawed military and veterans healthcare system.
This report shows us all that mental health care is literally a matter of life and death. If ninety-nine troops died in 2006 as the result of a new enemy mortar or roadside bomb, congress and the president would be rushing to find a new vehicle or piece of armor to deal with the problem. But for some reason, mental health related deaths are pushed off as something Congress and the president can get to later--after their summer vacations.
When Congress is back in session in September, IAVA will be out in front to ensure that new legislation is passed to get troops and veterans the counseling and treatment they need. We'll need to act fast to get legislation passed before the end of the year - and we'll need your help. Our troops are dying, and we need to do something about it. Even if the president won't.