The Senate did the right thing in passing landmark legislation to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The 65-31 vote in favor of repeal will allow gay and lesbian troops to serve openly. I applaud this civil rights victory and hope that such openness and tolerance will also come for mentally ill troops.
There is no question that guns in the hands of mentally ill troops will trouble many people. I understand this, though I believe the fear to be mostly based on a myth.
Many will cite U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell, who in May 2009 shot up a clinic for servicemen suffering from post-traumatic stress and killed five troops; and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan who killed 13 military personnel and wounded 32 others at Fort Hood last November. While it is possible that Russell had become delusional about others impeding his career track, he had no history of mental illness. And Hasan, who is receiving a mental health examination following an Article 32 hearing, planned his massacre for which he has shown no remorse, qualities characteristic of a psychopath, not a psychotic or mentally ill person.
As I have stated many times before, studies show that the severely mentally ill with no substance abuse problems commit only 3 to 4% of violent crime in this country.
Still, I recognize that psychotics, like me, sometimes misread a situation, and that in those situations psychotics can become violent.
I must point out, however, that I have never been violent, not as a civilian and not when I held a gun in three experiences as a volunteer in programs associated with the Israeli Army. I volunteered for those programs, even though I knew that I suffered from major depression, a depression that had turned psychotic by the time I reached my early thirties.
What about competence? Can a mentally ill soldier handle his or her duties as a fighter?
My mental illness did not prevent me from doing more pull-ups than all but one man and outrunning all the men in my unit in Marva, a basic-training equivalent for non-Israeli citizens, in 1990.
Nor did it prevent me in 2007 from completing a program called Sar-El, one that former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel also took part in some years ago, in which I packed duffel bags with night-vision goggles and hefted heavy-duty batteries for armored vehicles.
It is true that I did not complete Marva, my introduction to the Israeli Army, because my depression became exacerbated when I got injured, and I evidenced signs of psychosis in my third program in 2009 after entering a mini boot camp with the IDF's combat engineers.
It is not gay people alone who have been bullied in a military setting. I was bullied in 2009 though that had nothing to do with the IDF, whose commanding officer showed compassion for me, and everything to do with a few thugs in my group. Had I joined that program with a buddy, as all the other men in that boot camp did, I don't doubt that the group dynamics would have improved and that I would have completed the course.
While I lacked experience and dexterity in, for instance, tying knots, adjusting knee pads and handling a gun, that could have been remedied with a little assistance and patience from another member of the unit.
All of which leads me to believe that depressed, psychotic and suicidal soldiers need help, whether it's from a buddy or a clinician. Mentally ill troops should probably not serve in a combat capacity until they have tamed their illness, but that does not mean that they lack courage or honor. It is worth pointing out that Abraham Lincoln overcame two depressive episodes including suicidal feelings, subdued his melancholy and rallied the Union troops on the front lines in the Civil War.
I have written before about the increased rates of suicide in the U.S. military and about the shamefulness of a policy (one, like DADT, that apparently dates back to the Clinton administration), in which the families of troops who commit suicide do not receive condolence letters from the president.
Though President Obama supported the repeal of DADT, he has yet to change the nation's policy on these condolence letters regarding troops who otherwise conducted themselves honorably in the field.
It strikes me that this is more than an oversight as this issue has long been broached by mental health groups.
Now comes word from The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the leaders in the fight to prevent the repeal of DADT, may have blocked legislation to prevent suicides among reservists in the U.S. military. That legislation, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and named in honor of a reservist who committed suicide, was incorporated by the House in May into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011.
McCain's camp denied the accusation that he blocked this provision from the final bill.
What is going on here? Why would President Obama ignore requests to send condolence letters to the families of troops who committed suicide? And why would Senator McCain, his lethal adversary, who disagrees with Obama on just about everything, potentially object to a provision in a defense bill that would provide funds for more mental-health counselors for mentally ill troops?
Could it be that there is a greater stigma against the mentally ill than there is against gays and lesbians?
As disappointed as I am in Obama on this issue, I am even more disappointed in McCain, who reportedly attempted suicide as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after he had been tortured and forced to sign a statement of disloyalty to the U.S. Of all our nation's leaders, McCain knows what it is like to be suicidal and should have compassion and understanding for our troops who have considered taking their lives.
Surely, Obama and McCain can agree on that.