Combat stress, suicide & kicking God out of the military

Something’s going on here but can’t exactly put my finger on it; or at least I didn’t have a clue until I had some interesting conservations which opened my eyes.

A lady at work remarked that her father, a preacher and truck driver, had confessed to her that the US is going through a great change. Actually, what he said was that people were different. The things which made life more fun seem to be trivial today. There is a sense or aura of tension and apathy not seen before.  The always entertaining notes written on bathroom stalls at truck stops have changed from ‘for a good time call ____’ to quoting scripture.

When people stop attending to their own selfish, even prurient nature that should point to something big. Great change comes from purposeful preparation.

My colleague returned from R&R recently in Indiana and the same ‘feeling’ of apathy and overall fear could be felt in his hometown. I’m dreading making the same trip home to find it’s turned into the village from Children of the Damned. But seriously, we’re headed for challenging and scary times. Just how scary and challenging I don’t know, no one does; just realize it’s coming. Some people who used to shop for luxuries now hang on to their money more. Many others I’ve watched suddenly pack up and head home just because. The reason being they want to be closer to their kids and rest of the family. Suddenly the excitement of making more money or having things doesn’t seem so important anymore.

While one war is revving up its engine another has begun to slow down, bringing a new set of problems.

I saw a quote by George Washington referencing vice and virtue; mostly aimed at the state of mind of his troops. That brings me to the topic of mental health.

I know that the majority of people in America are very supportive of our troops in both war fronts. Having a distraction here or there like USO shows like the wonderful Uncle Kracker and Ja Rule concerts are actually welcome but I know that these amenities can’t make up for good mental health. June 2010 had the highest troop suicide rates. Just because we’re on the way out does not mean it’s over or it’s less dangerous.

That is strictly a leadership concern, one that perhaps is not being properly addressed.

This week we celebrated the 115th anniversary of the AFEES and the Gunny asked me if I had time to stop by the PX and witness the cake cutting ceremony. The Mayor would be cutting the cake. I had no idea the PX had been around that long. I meet interesting people and the more interesting people I meet do my eyes open wider. While waiting for the camp boss to get cake cutting duties he introduced me to a young man who had just walked in to shop. A soldier in his PT gear he introduced himself as one of the current Chaplains; originally from the Balkans the Captain mentioned he is one of 7 active duty Orthodox Christian Chaplains. Army Reserves has about 25.

Our conversation shifted from cake to military suicides and the reduction of the Chaplain corps by the Air Force  which is rather disturbing. The Chaplain seemed deeply concerned by the loss of religious personnel and hopes the US Army absorbs them into its ranks. His greatest complaint is the mental health approach being employed in Iraq. The recent case of a soldier going on a violent rampage at Victory Base right over the mental health clinic (why would anyone treat combat stress within a combat zone?)  is a clear example of how the powers that be are slowly facing out God from our ranks and bringing the feel-good generation with pills.

How one troubled career soldier could raise his weapon in anger at other soldiers seems unconscionable to the outsider yet if you look at the circumstances closely the entire incident was preventable. The main failure here is really to keep the stressed individual in theatre rather than send them back home or at least continue treatment stateside or in Europe. The Chaplain’s complaint is the removal of the religious/spiritual factor from the picture that will further erode the soldier’s condition. I don’t know about many people but even those who claim not to believe bow their heads in silence before going out on missions. None of us knows what’s out there and what will happen. Downsizing the Chaplain Corps is a crazy idea. What’s the hurry? Chaplains have risked their lives in every war alongside our troops bringing much needed solace in their time of need.

This is not to say that spiritual nourishment alone will be a contributing factor in mitigating suicides but then the alternatives do not seem to be any better.

The number of suicides went up in June 2010 as troops come through the base to demobilize. Just how ready are they to come home? That’s another war front and many Americans don’t see what is going on. There are a few points of interest I’d like to bring up because on the surface they may not appear to be relevant but they are; just not together or directly sometimes.

Poor leadership has been linked to the rise in suicides and this push for the feel good generation – of if you don’t look that way your troubles will disappear – is a runaway train. Some unit commanders don’t guard the psychological or physical health of their people to the point of assigning people to hazardous duties when they’re not fit I can’t say that of all units as there is good evidence that some measures are in place to monitor the mental health of unit personnel. The resources online are so vast even as a researcher it’s a daunting task of selecting the program or mitigation that is right for that unit. Frankly, a more centralized and standardized system across the board would be highly beneficial but that’s just me.

The feel good concept I’m talking about is this tenuous hold we have on these troops by providing them with temporary relief to common and acute stressors. I hear a lot of ‘give them what they want’ but really, what exactly to these soldiers and other troops want? For instance, if someone is troubled and not being treated officially, what else can they do? Will the leadership be receptive of their issues and handle accordingly or ignore them?

How about violence?

Search the web for stories about Iraq war vets committing crimes at home. There are so many out there but occasionally you’ll see one or two stories trickle into the mainstream addressing violence against vets. Complacency kills in combat, in the rear and back home when the soldier takes leave to visit family then thinks that the environment has not changed. You’ll often hear a soldier say “I’ve been to Iraq 3 times and just finished a tour in Afghanistan!”

Wonderful; they let their guard down long enough to be victims of assault, battery, robberies; death. And just wait until they get home and find out the ‘flavor’ of our current pre-revolutionary state of affairs. With few job prospects that’s a disaster waiting to happen. So preparation for the battles of life ahead must be factored in to any service member before they deploy, during deployment and before going home. Many will just turn around to go back into action in Afghanistan. The level of stress never lowers to regain normalcy to build up for next round. What kind of sense of reality is this?

Let me tell you about substance abuse.

I’ve taken a look at what the AFFES sells in many FOBs you know, junk food; chips, sodas and juices. I made a stop at a different base recently and wanted to buy a small bottle of water as I had run out of my own; it’s hot. 120 degrees outside and dehydration comes quickly. So I looked in the freezers for a bottle. There were sodas in one, iced teas in another; nope, no water. Three freezers out of six had nothing but energy drinks filled to the top. Not a drop of water in the entire PX. I left thirsty and wondered if anyone bothered to ask for water.

Sure, many people sit down and have breakfast with a can of soda; that’s their routine but the consumption of these energy drinks in a combat zone is nothing more than doping.

Yeah, that’s right; doping.

How do you get someone who is not motivated or sure about themselves to keep going? This war has been rushed because of politics; and the drawdown will show that the ‘exit plan’ when rushed will do the same. Send everyone home with the exception of stay-behind personnel. See how much time will take for them to adjust to normal home conditions? After the Gulf war many people returned home separate from their units and unable to deal with any personal or professional issues they had at the time. Originally the military came out with this idea of conducting mass psychological screenings as people arrived back home. I know the Navy tried the same thing; like calling kids to the principal’s office one by one.

I got the hell out of there quickly. That’s right; I skipped the screening; though some people would be inclined to believe I needed it. I couldn’t be any saner if I tried. PTSD and all adaptive behavioral maladies can manifest in strange ways. No one is really spared. Having worked in the medical field and also mental health (yes, if you can believe that) I was not keen on undergoing a blind evaluation with a shrink at a new command and prior to my discharge from active duty. The question is; how can we assess and treat a problem without obtaining a baseline snapshot of their psyche? With no background history to work with or even an interview with supervisors and peers it’s hardly a good thing to do. Why?

Many units have conducted these assessments but really don’t know any statistics to support problem identification and treatment or counseling. This information should be available to families as well to measure what they have to deal with when their loved ones come home.

Naturally because of the stigma of being perceived as crazy, what else? That’s not a technical concept but a human concept. Everyone changed whether it’s the guy who is getting shot at or those who remain in the ‘rear’ and supposedly not in direct combat. There is this misconception that life on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) is easy and it is in comparison to being in the field. But people are also subjected to harassing fire such as mortar or rocket attacks, car bombs and IEDs and other threats. There’s much expectation either way for the person in uniform who also has a family life and other things to worry about. The amount of stress goes up; the level of confidence they’ll pull through a crisis goes down.

How about those subtle signs warning that only two cans of compressed air can be purchased by each customer? Or did we forget that people can get high with them?

Uncle Sam wants you

So much money spent on recruitment is staggering but then when I hear the leadership talk about implementing medal awards for ‘restraint’ announcing that war strategies are aimed at producing ‘modest’ gains hey, why not try to escape? New recruits to some liberal minds seem far too eager to act like soldiers and are deemed undesirable for service. I heard this on the radio recently and about screamed but can’t find the story. So we want them to fight but we want to ‘tone’ down their All-American fighting spirit, is that it? But I was talking about Chaplains or was it about birthday cake and a can of Monster? Pick your poison young soldier; because being American these days has become some sort of liability.

Don’t mind me I’m just ranting. I submit these ideas for your review and meditation.

I want to dedicate my rant to the many brave Chaplains who run along the green suits holding the good book; always ready to listen to their troubles. May your ranks grow once again… you are needed.

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2 Responses to “Combat stress, suicide & kicking God out of the military”

  1. naomilitvin Says:

    This is such an excellent article and I especially enjoyed all the links. What a great amount of educational material for me. I have gotten interested in all of this accidentally, but I’m getting up to speed on the subject because it is so important. I have met people on twitter with incredible experiences who are being very generous in sharing what they have gained and what they have lost from being in the military. My heart goes out to them and to all of the active duty people and veterans. My father was a Jewish World War II Veteran and although I didn’t serve, I have had friends that served in Vietnam that came back and were never the same. I hope that I can help get the word out on all of this.

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