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One great thing about the current state of journalism is that it is impossible to sweep things under the rug. Some blogger somewhere is going to take up the cause. It is, however, information explosion, and so some things go unnoticed and do not receive the attention they deserve. There is one issue that has reached both bloggers and the mainstream press. It is psychological stress and military suicide. The New York Times is running a series of articles, and Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis had a hearing about it on Wednesday.
Skelton addressed the problem not as an end point but as a chain of events. He said, “It is the final step an individual takes when they can no longer deal with the stressors in their life.” He said that it was important to determine why the suicide rate has increased and what stressors led to it.
Some of the testimony came from Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff for the Army. His main point was that they couldn’t just focus on reducing the number of suicides; they have to address the stress and anxiety faced by the military and the results of that stress such as increased substance abuse, infidelity and even reckless driving. The numbers are not pretty. Last year in the Army alone there were 140 suicides, translating into a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers. In January and February there were 41 suicides compared with 16 in 2008. By anyone’s standards that is a whooping amount of suicides.
My view is that part of the problem lies with recruitment. Recruiters are rewarded with how many bodies they can bring in to the all-volunteer military. I once asked the head of recruiting for one of the military branches if he had one wish for training potential recruits before they signed up for active duty what would it be? He replied, “financial literacy.” He said they get credit cards, get a girlfriend or wife and start charging. Soon they are up to their necks in debt, and it adds huge pressure to their military service.
In the Air Force they found that young enlisted men with a rank of E1 to E4 and between the ages of 21 and 25 have the highest risk of suicide. That is not surprising given that brain development is more complete by age 25. The pre-frontal cortex, which helps reason over impulse, is more fully formed by then. There is a reason car companies don’t rent cars to people younger than 25 without a surcharge. The young adult brain is just not fully developed.
Other factors in the Air Force suicide rate include relationships gone awry and poor coordination among professionals. Weekends were the prime time for suicides, and there was also poor communication between the treating mental health providers and commanders. There is always tension in the military between confidentiality and the need to communicate with supervisors. This is now being addressed so that soldiers can discuss personal issues without being worried about facing discharge.
Each branch of service is engaging in suicide prevention programs. In Iraq they deal with post traumatic stress right away, not when someone gets home. Programs are set up so that there is immediate intervention before the trauma is replayed over and over by the less-advanced part of the brain.
There are some issues that go right back to engagement strategies, including too many back-to-back tours of duty and the fact that National Guard duty has become synonymous with active service. It was never intended to be that way, but it functions that way. The other problem is young wives who have not had parenting education and are raising children as a single parents because their loved ones are on active duty across the oceans. This puts enormous stress on them and their husbands who are alone and enlisted.
The military is doing its best to try and address these problems and has engaged in the lives of these soldiers in ways that have been previously unheard of. However, little of the testimony on Wednesday dealt with recruitment. It was a glaring deficit in the hearings and must be addressed by a more complete assessment of incoming recruits. There also needs to be less focus on getting bodies in and more focus on finding recruits who can handle stress, as well as financial and family problems. It is time our military began to look at what happens before someone enters the service, not just after. The other option is the draft, and some liberals including Chairman Charlie Rangel thinks that would make a military more like the rest of America. It is worthy of consideration and may make a stronger and healthier military.