Fighting A War Against An Invisible Enemy, Soldiers Battle PTSD

Desperation, depression — and an overwhelming feeling of desertion — are the dangerous components that have contributed to the rising tide of suicide and mental health problems in the military. Just this week it was announced that for the sixth year in a row, suicide among members of the armed forces is on the rise. Mental health has been a growing problem in the military, as waves of soldiers continue to return from Afghanistan and Iraq in much worse shape than they left. New statistics reveal that for the second year in a row, more soldiers have killed themselves than been killed in active duty. July 2012 was the worst month for military suicides to date, with 39 self-inflicted deaths reported. That’s up from 24 the month before. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among soldiers.

Soldiers returning from war suffer a host of problems — from difficulty reintegrating into family and home life, to finding a job. But by far one of the biggest problems for military veterans is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder — or PTSD — describes a host of symptoms, including depression, upsetting memories of the event, increased jumpiness, and insomnia. It’s estimated that between 7-8 percent of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. According to the Veteran’s Administration between 11 and 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD, the American Psychological Association believes that number is closer to 20 percent. Among those who’ve survived major head trauma in combat, the incidences of PTSD are even higher — around 44 percent. Considering that around 15 percent of all active duty soldiers report experiencing head trauma, the potential number of PTSD suffers is huge. A 2010 report from the Defense Department’s Medical Surveillance team found that incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder increased six-fold between 2003 to 2008.

One PTSD sufferer is Major Ben Richards, profiled by Nicholas Kristoff in a recent New York Times article. Richards’ vehicle was hit by a bomb while patrolling in Baquba, Iraq. He experienced major head trauma, and suffered from headaches, fatigue, insomnia and fainting spells. The previously skilled, intelligent soldier returned with diminished cognitive abilities and deep depression that compounded his survivor’s guilt (90 out of 100 men in his company were hit by a bomb blast at least once). At first, Richards denied that there was any problem, believing the Army ethos that “you’re not even entitled to complain unless you’ve lost all four limbs.”

It’s thought that complications from PTSD — the depression, confusion, anxiety and hopelessness associated with the disorder — coupled with the inability or unwillingness to receive treatment is a major cause for the increase in suicides.  In the past three years, there have been more than 350 suicides of active duty soldiers alone. The huge number of suicides from active and returning soldiers is cause for serious concern among top officials. In a recent letter to military leaders, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that “suicide prevention is a leadership responsibility. Commanders and supervisors cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services.”

But with a hugely overtaxed Veterans’ Affairs system — rife with under-qualified and under-trained mental health staff — it’s difficult for soldiers to receive care, even if they want it.  “There is a serious systemic problem with access to mental health care,” Patrick Bellon, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Veterans For Common sense sued the VA for lack of adequate mental health care. He notes that even soldiers who do manage to wade through the difficult VA mental health system are often delayed in receiving treatment. “If you are in a serious mental crisis, two weeks might as well be forever.” Typically, it takes an average of eight months for veterans to get a decision on health claims they file. And that wait time is only set to increase as more and more claims flood the system.

Ben Richards knows the wait well. After enduring nearly a dozen phone calls with his local VA, Ben still isn’t sure what benefits he can count on. But he does know that his military insurance won’t cover some of the treatments his doctor’s recommend. As Kristoff notes, it seems ridiculous that we have such a well-funded military when it comes to weapons and warfare, but fail to provide the necessary resources for the military’s most valuable components — its soldiers:

“The military’s most valuable assets aren’t its Strykers or tanks, but the highly trained troops inside them. When a soldier is harmed by repeat concussions, hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in training are squandered. And shoddy treatment of returning soldiers will undermine recruitment and retention in the future.”

Because statistics don’t lie, the military realized they needed to do something to better serve troops in need. In 2009, the Army launched the Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention campaign. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli explained:

“After visiting six installations and talking to all levels of command and staff, those who provide care, support, and services, and soldiers and their families, I realized we needed to take a much more holistic approach in improving the physical, mental, and spiritual health of our soldiers and their families than solely focusing on suicide prevention. If we do the first, we are convinced the second will happen.”

In addition to talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, some soldiers have found that animal therapy — and even guided ecstasy trips (which involves taking the drug under doctor supervision under observation) — help keep symptoms at bay.

But shockingly, it’s not only active duty soldiers who are taking their own lives, it’s also members of the reserves and National Guard who have never seen combat. One possible reason — the general economic downturn has put added pressure on people to provide for their families. In this respect, the military should be seen as as reflection of American society, not a marker of it. Said Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, “We are the canary in the mineshaft, especially the Guard, because we recruit in communities and are a reflection of those communities.” Part time reserve soldiers often live hundreds of miles away from where they’re stationed, so access to mental health facilities is difficult at best and impossible at worst.

Compounding the problem is the stigma attached to mental health issues, especially in a masculine military culture where soldiers are expected to quell their emotions and feelings in order to get the job done. Having a non-physical problem compounds the mental health problem — no one can see that you’re sick, so you’re expected to live your life as though nothing were wrong. The pressure can be unbelievable.

It’s enough to make some soldiers wish that they’d lost a limb instead. “I’d trade a leg for this in a heartbeat,” Ben Richards told The Times. “If all I was missing was a leg, I’d be a stud. And if I’d lost a leg, I’d be able to stay in the Army. That’s all I want to do.”


Advocate on behalf of soldiers and their families by contacting your local representatives and letting them know that more needs to be done. Let them know that those who protect us need to be protected, too.

[The New York Times]
[Army Times]
[Christian Science Monitor]
[American Psychological Association]
[Huffington Post]
[Star Tribune]