05/20/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Sexual Assaults, Suicide and Misconduct in the Military

The all-volunteer military has been hit by a growing wave of sexual assaults and suicides. As usual in the U.S., most attention has focused on how to control the problems, rather than why they are happening.

In both cases, recruits are subject to psychological testing. Therefore they should be less likely to commit suicides or sexual assaults.

In addition to the sex assault and suicide problems, it was reported Sunday that discharges for misconduct have risen to their highest level in recent times. The Colorado Springs Gazette said some of those discharged are wounded combat troops who will lose their medical benefits for minor offenses that can be symptoms of traumatic brain injury or PTSD. The newspaper gained the information through a Freedom of Information request.

The Gazette, in the center of one of the country's largest concentrations of military, said annual misconduct discharges have increased more than 25 percent since 2009.

"I've been working on this since the '70s, and I have never seen anything like this," said Mark Waple, a retired Army officer who now tries military cases as a civilian lawyer near North Carolina's Fort Bragg. "There seems to be a propensity to use minor misconduct for separation, even for service members who are decorated in combat and injured."

The military's defense for the rising suicide rate has been that it is still lower than the civilian rate

The New York Times reports that the Pentagon is using methods that work in its favor. "A different methodology, like one employed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would result in in a military rate equivalent to or above the comparable civilian rate, experts say," the Times reports.

In a letter to the editor to the Times, pediatrician David S. Hodes of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., wrote that the military seeks those who are more aggressive and will to take risks. "It is also possible that they tend more to despondency when they consider themselves failures and thus more likely to develop self-hatred and commit suicide."

Suicides have risen steadily during the past 12 years among active-duty forces, reaching a record of 350 last year. The number has grown even as the number of soldiers deployed in war zones has declined, though stress from combat clearly is a factor in some cases. Among retired veterans thousands more commit suicide each year.

Even with the knowledge of the growing problem, victims sometimes cannot get the help they need. Helicopter pilot Capt. Ian Morrison reportedly sought help six times in the days before he committed suicide at Fort Hood.

Critics have sought to take the chain of command out of decisions on whether sexual assault claims are justified. Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand says commanders do not have the training to handle such cases.

Under the draft, military lawyers and commanders worried less about the chance for promotion.
Gillebrand introduced a bill requiring that all claims of sexual assault by handled by military prosecutors.

The Pentagon reported 26,000 members of the military reported in a confidential survey that they had been sexually assaulted. Fewer than 4,000 claims were filed. Some of those who have reported attacks say they have been discharged, and their attackers not punished.

There are many reasons why the Pentagon prefers an all-volunteer military. The modern day military is very technical and most draftees would not be capable of using new weapons without months of training.

Perhaps equally important, it is far more problematic to send draftees to war than to dispatch a military that enlisted knowing the risks.

Whether having an all-volunteer military is playing a role in the rapidly rising number of sexual assaults is more difficult to say.

Gale Tarleton, writing in the Seattle Times, says the military's secrecy can be compared to the Vatican. "The parallels are disturbing: a cloistered culture, intentional efforts to prevent public scrutiny and powerless victims compelled to stay silent. We could be reading about another sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church."

Would the chain of command be more likely to defend a fellow career military person?

Drones are another example of seeking to minimize the loss of life of members of the military.
These two problems alone raise the question of whether an all-volunteer army is the best way to defend the nation.

Historians say the Roman Army was strongest when it was made up of conscripts -- usually property owners. Its decline began when it began accepting volunteers, and accelerated when it hired mercenaries.

Two-thousand years later, it is unclear whether mankind or womankind can take the rigors of war. U.S. military studies as far back as World War II state that repeated exposure to battle results in post-traumatic stress in many cases.

British historian John Keegan, in "The Face of Battle," writes that evolution has made "the fitness of modern man to sustain the stress of battle increasingly doubtful."

Keegan writes there is no doubt some warriors can handle the stress. Yet now that data is available on what the stress of war does to soldiers it is known that "psychiatric casualties at every stage of the war formed a significant percentage of all battle casualties...."