January 13, 2010

A Tragic Ripple Effect

Over the years, I have written often about the stress under which the men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States serve - and the strain that places on our military institutions - since the launch of George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our servicemen and women remain largely forgotten (with notable exceptions) as we continue to use poorer Americans to wage what amount to luxury conflicts that have little impact on the daily lives of most Americans in this modern era of the all-volunteer force.

Since 2003, the people who serve our country in uniform have been subjected to stop-loss; given insufficient equipment; asked to complete undefined long term missions; suffered cuts in benefits; struggled with inadequate veterans facilities, outpatient care and psychological services; dealt with recruits gathered under diminished standards for enlistment; borne the deployment of medically unfit personnel; and suffered an unprecedented suicide rate.

Unfortunately, it appears that the ripple effect of this duress is continuing to spread; the suicide rate among veterans has skyrocketed alongside that of men and women still serving:
The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) said Monday that preliminary data reflects that the suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old male veterans has increased significantly. It said the rate went up 26 percent from 2005 to 2007. VA officials said they assume that most of the veterans in this age group served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military has also struggled with an increase in suicides, with the Army seeing a record number last year. While the military frequently releases such data, it has been more difficult to track suicide information on veterans once they've left active duty.

The VA calculated the numbers using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers from 16 states. In 2005, the rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99, compared with 56.77 in 2007, the VA said. It did not release data for other population groups.

Commenting on this tragic state of affairs, former Army Chief of Staff, and current Secretary for Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki (whose efforts to bring a measure of realism to Donald Rumsfeld's pipe dream of a walkover invasion of Iraq I deeply respect) made one of the more tin-eared public comments in recent memory:
Why do we know so much about suicides but still know so little about how to prevent them?  Simple question, but we continue to be challenged.
Here's a clue from the Army's own 2006 study on the suicide rate for soldiers:
Failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and work stress were motivating factors, the report said. It also found a significant link between suicide attempts and the number of days deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops participate in the war effort.
Seems like a pretty simple equation to me: if we continue to push both individuals and institutions past their breaking point, they'll break.

The worst part is that there remains no definitive end in sight;.  Public attention  is on the economy and health care reform, and pressure to bring American service people home from Iraq and Afghanistan is at what may well be an all-time low.  Unless and until the general population is impacted directly by the slow-motion train wreck our military is enduring, that is unlikely to change.

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