Alone in a guard tower 6,800 miles from her home in Longview, Wash., Specialist Mikayla Bragg took her own life last December. Bragg's commanding officers at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, had no idea that in the months prior to her deployment the 20-year-old Army specialist had multiple encounters with the military mental health system. Had her mental health care history been shared by those treating her at Fort Knox, Bragg's COs in Afghanistan would have known that the young soldier had previously made an attempt on her life, that she had spend 45 days in an Army hospital for mental health treatment prior to deploying, and that six months before she committed suicide she had ceased using prescription anti-anxiety medication so that she could deploy.
In the 135-page report following the Army's investigation into Bragg's death, a behavioral health officer at FOB Salerno said that it was his/her opinion that Bragg "fell through the cracks" thanks to a lack of communication between officials at her duty station stateside and her commanding officers in Afghanistan. For Bragg's CO to be left in the dark about her mental health care needs is unconscionable; our leaders (and our systems) cannot allow our troops to fall through so-called cracks.
Last Friday, the Army released suicide numbers for the month of September. There were 31
potential suicides for the month: 15 among active-duty soldiers and 16 among the reserve and Guard components, bringing the total number of Army suicides so far in 2012 to 247. After just nine months of 2012, the number of suicides has almost surpassed the total number of suicides in 2011.
Despite the attention of leaders like President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta, the trend is going in the wrong direction. In August, President Obama issued an executive order entitled "Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families," expanding mental health care access and promoting suicide prevention across the board. Secretary Panetta has called the military's struggle with suicide "perhaps the most frustrating challenge" he's dealt with since assuming the top post at the Pentagon.
Eleven years of war, multiple deployments, and short dwell time in between have severely stressed our forces. The newest data on VA health care utilization by OIF/OEF veterans shows that close to 30 percent of the 848,616 new veterans enrolled in VA health care have been diagnosed with PTSD. And with VA wait times exceeding 365 days in many cities around the country, we can and must do better. We have asked much of our troops. At the very least, they deserve to come home to a system that is prepared to meet their physical and mental health care needs. And they deserve to be mentioned by the men aspiring to be America's next Commander in Chief. But this is an issue you didn't hear in any of the debates -- and you're unlikely to hear on the campaign trail in the next few weeks.
Combating an enemy as dangerous as suicide requires leadership at every level of command. It requires concrete efforts by the DoD and VA to eliminate stigma and improve access to mental health care. And most of all, it begs for a national commitment from every citizen to look out for our service members and veterans. Supporting the men and women on your left and right is our duty, overseas and here at home.
Right now, you can make that commitment by using IAVA's voter guide to cast a smart vote for veterans in this election. The candidates running for office this year at every level, from every party, are not stepping up. In the debates, you heard almost nothing about the issues that matter to us most. After 10 years of war, you heard more about Big Bird than you did about veterans. After every debate, the Democrats and Republicans clamber to claim victory, but only one thing is for sure -- our veterans and their families lost.
At IAVA, we think we can change that -- but we need your help. Download IAVA's short, smart, non-partisan Voter Guide now and make your voice heard. Don't let candidates off the hook when they say "I support our troops" and pose for a photo. Ask them tough questions:
How will you keep our troops from "falling through the cracks"?
IAVA has partnered with the Veterans Crisis Line to bring resources to events and to provide IAVA's membership with direct and immediate access to mental health professionals. Add the Veterans Crisis Line number to your phone, it only takes a second: 1-800-273-8255 press 1 for veterans or text "838255" for support. If you're a veteran, join our discussion at Community of Veterans (COV) to learn more about the partnership and the warning signs of suicide.
Crossposted at IAVA.org.