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Published:February 10th, 2009 09:21 EST
Hopelessness Casts a Long Shadow over Soldiers` Well-Being

Hopelessness Casts a Long Shadow over Soldiers` Well-Being

By Christopher HIllenbrand

The death tolls in Iraq have steadily been on the decline in the last year. Insurgency and unrest have generally been replaced by compliance and hope in many of the most battle-ravaged areas of the country. A newly-elected democratic regime for Iraq starts an upturn in the outlook on world politics and diplomacy. As a logical product, fewer and fewer of our men and women in uniform have become casualties in another immoral war with a cause rooted in corruption.


But January saw the gravest toll on our soldiers beyond the visible borders of war for a single month. And this statistic can`t be swept under the rug, like many have been in the past.


U.S. Army officials announced that there were reportedly 24 suicides of soldiers on furlough for the month, while 7 were confirmed. But, in more cases than not, the overwhelming majority of reported suicides are eventually accepted. This was an adjunct on the annual brief filed last week which grimly informed Congress that 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008: the most ever for a single year. According to General Peter Chiarelli, Army Chief of Staff: the trend and trajectory seen in January further heightens the seriousness and urgency that all of us must have in preventing suicides."


This number was the 4th consecutive year of suicides on the rise in the Army; and, with the recent data, this year may be even deadlier. In fact, there were more self-inflicted deaths amongst soldiers than civilians in the previous calendar year. Last year`s figure was a staggering 6 times the number of suicides in all of 2007. If all 24 cases are verified, then 8 more soldiers have died between our shores than all the casualties of U.S. soldiers fighting around the world combined.


Putting the round number into perspective, this means there are approximately 20.2 soldiers who have died by their own hands out of every 100,000. This is the highest adjusted percentage since the Vietnam War. So, when it comes down to another grisly statistic, the current Iraq campaign still can`t escape that inextricable link to the other most needless conflict in U.S. history.


But the chain of command isn`t shedding any explanation on why the ghastly trend has continued to escalate for the last 4 years. In fact, Army Secretary Pete Geren upheld the story that Army officials are as perplexed as they`ve let on concerning soldiers` increasing suicide rates.


Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," he tried to clarify at a press conference last week at the Pentagon. We can tell you that across the Army we`re committed to doing everything we can to address the problem."


Experts find that the low number of new enlistees may be a cause. With fewer men and women in service, those in uniform are required to serve longer tours of duty and multiple redeployments. Psychologists have confirmed that the increases in suicides coincide with the extensive stress and mental anguish these soldiers in particular undergo. According to some studies, PTSD and traumatic brain injuries are on the rise as well. Another reason for the alarming rate is attributed to the cost of returning to a normal civilian life for many of the victims. Common stressors between these individuals usually concerned financial difficulties with the lagging economy, legal problems and interpersonal relationship problems.


Of course, after the Army admitted the shocking revelation, they announced the start of a new special training initiative between Feb. 15th and March 15th to help soldiers to become aware of troubled and suicidal behaviors from fellow soldiers. After March 15th, the Army has planned to institute a suicide prevention program applicable to every walk or rank in the U.S. Army.


But it`s what experts choose not to disclose about the epidemic that peals the loudest call to action. The fact of the matter is that the Republican bureaucracy of the previous administration was to blame for most soldiers` woes abroad and at home. A class action suit was brought forward by the Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, representing the 1.7 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.


According to their suit, which went to trial last year in San Francisco, both groups affirm that the U.S. government regularly denied disability benefits and mental health care for soldiers returning from combat. The case known as Veterans for Common Sense Vs. Peake, ruled in favor of the VA department last summer, which was quickly appealed by the plaintiffs.


Samuel Conti, the judge that presided over the matter, found that "Veteran Affairs is in serious need of overhaul " but denied the veterans any financial restitution. Since the decision was handed down, there weren`t any considerable alterations made on how the department was managed while George W. Bush sat like a good rubber play thing in the bathtub of his presidency. Along with the 1.7 million vets represented at the trial, are the ones who have lived lifetimes and have never seen a fair equity in what they`ve sacrificed for their country. Veterans from "Nam, Gulf War, WWII, still receive sub-adequate mental and physical health care at VA facilities across the nation."


 Thinking as one who learned exactly what it means to be an American hero, is it really so hard to think that the life that`s requisite to be a hero also means nothing?


It`s easier when your enemy comes at you in flesh tones of all colors, rather than an enmity in the skin from which you can`t escape. And by the same uncaring flag they bled for, many wrestle their demons on their own. Unfortunately, many of those, without a brother in arms to guide his or her mind to the light, lose the battle.


The fact is, in less than a year since the case was held, 6,500 veterans of all ages commit suicide every year: a trend that, as precedence has proven, is bound to worsen.


This illogical war will come to an end, probably later than most, including myself, would hope. But, if all veterans don`t receive the appropriate mental and physical health care they deserve soon, you`ll be burying this nation`s sons and daughters long after the fires have extinguished.