The Military's Mounting Mental Health Problems

"A Fort Lewis soldier and veteran of the war in Iraq turned himself in [April 21]... saying he had committed a homicide, a Pierce County sheriff's spokesman said. The soldier's 28-year-old wife subsequently was found dead, apparently from homicidal violence. ...The soldier ... returned to Fort Lewis last month after serving for a year in Iraq with the 555th Combat Engineer Group." - The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 22, 2004

Over the past year there have been an unusually high number of suicides among U.S. troops in Iraq, and hundreds of soldiers experiencing psychological problems have been evacuated from the country. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent announcement authorizing the extension -- by at least three months -- of the tours of duty of some 20,000 soldiers set to return home, and the possibility of intensified urban warfare may add to the stress suffered by soldiers serving in Iraq.

In response, the U.S. has increased the use of combat stress control teams, established a toll-free crisis hotline for service members having problems dealing with stress, and set up recuperation centers where soldiers can chill out for a few days before returning to the front lines. Questions about whether these actions are too little too late, and how the soldiers will be treated when they return home remain to be answered.

Twenty-four soldiers -- 20 army personnel, two Marines and two sailors -- have taken their lives during the past year in Iraq and Kuwait. In addition, there have been seven suicides among "newly States-sided troops," including two soldiers who killed themselves while patients at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the Toronto Star recently reported.

The suicide rate for army troops in Iraq has been 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared to the overall Army rate of 11.9 per 100,000 between 1995 and 2002. According to StrategyPage.com, this rate is higher than the rate for all branches of the military during the Vietnam War, which was 15.6, and higher than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War which had a 3.6 rate for all branches.

"The higher suicide rate in Iraq can be attributed to the higher percentage of married and reserve troops, and the lower amount of stress training and screening in basic training for non-combat troops," military analyst James F. Dunnigan, author of The Next War Zone: Confronting the Global Threat of Cyberterrorism, wrote in a recent commentary.

Dr. David N. Tornberg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy, told American Forces Radio and Television Service that the suicide deaths are a "primary concern" for his office. "It's very important for anyone who is feeling stressed to come forward, to speak to their chaplain, to speak to a mental health practitioner or physician, to speak to someone in your line of authority," he said.

Coming forward, however, often exacts a severe price: Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, an interrogator for the 10th Special Forces Group, was charged with cowardice after suffering a panic attack in Iraq, the Denver Post recently reported. Although "the cowardice charge was [eventually] dropped...Pogany's case at Fort Carson is still unresolved."

Secretary Rumsfeld's tour extensions came a few weeks after the Army issued a report on the mental health conditions of the troops serving in Iraq. A previous "after-action" report written in October 2003, and obtained by United Press International, indicated the Pentagon had "'inappropriately' deployed soldiers to Iraq who already were diagnosed with mental problems."

"Variability in pre-deployment screening guidelines for mental health issues may have resulted in some soldiers with mental health diagnoses being inappropriately deployed," the earlier report stated. That could "create the impression that some soldiers develop problems in theater, when, in some cases, they actually have pre-existing conditions."

"That's mostly about reservists who did not keep their medical profiles up to date (lest they be forced out of the National Guard or reserves)," James Dunnigan told AlterNet in an e-mail. "The Army did not screen closely because the reserves were supposed to keep the records current on all their people," and "things do get a bit lax in the National Guard, but that's another story."

The larger Army study -- based on a six-week visit to Iraq in late August, and short stopovers in mid-October at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and Fort Stewart, Ga., where soldiers who had been to Iraq and Kuwait were interviewed -- was released in late March. It aimed to evaluate and offer "recommendations on Operation Iraqi Freedom-related mental health services, soldier access to those services in theater and after evacuation, and effective suicide prevention measures for Soldiers in active combat."

Steve Robinson, executive director of the veterans' National Gulf War Resource Center, told UPI that he has tried to get the Pentagon to use more thorough screening methods. Robinson, a former Army Ranger, said that the recently revealed "information indicates that pre-deployment, during-deployment and post-deployment screening is critical. If done properly, it will rule in -- or rule out -- the deployability of service members."

"It is time to stop having congressional hearings on what needs to be done and have the Department of Defense step up to the plate and perform the screenings as required by law."

Cognizant of the difficult conditions U.S. troops deployed in Iraq are facing, the military has developed "regimental recuperation centers...in the field to help Marines and Navy personnel with observed combat stress symptoms," Mississippi's Sun Herald recently reported. Individuals who are not able to perform their jobs adequately are sent to the centers, and for up to three days they receive counseling, warm meals, a shower and clean clothes, before being sent back to the front.

According to reporter Patrick Peterson, "Combat stress ... might reveal itself in ... inattention to routine duties to mutilation of enemy dead and even deadly attacks on fellow soldiers, which were reported in Vietnam." Ironically, "Soldiers and Marines on the attack feel more in control, which reduces stress, even when casualties are high. As combat proceeds, stress cases actually decline for a time, because troops become more competent and experienced in battle."

"It's nothing like a clinic. Individuals are not patients," said Capt. Robert L. Koffman, Navy psychiatrist and division medical officer. "We don't take the warrior out of the war and send them to a hospital. The whole premise is not to stigmatize."

At a recent Boulder, Colorado, symposium titled "The Unseen Costs of War" Dr. Gene Bolles, who for the two years following the 9/11 attacks served as the chief of neurosurgery services at Landsthul Regional Medical Center in Germany claimed that thousands of GIs have been admitted to Landsthul for psychiatric care.

According to medical officials interviewed by the Denver Post, "Between 8 and 10 percent of all soldiers returning from Iraq will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or will need some counseling once stateside."

Taking care of the wounded and the sick after they arrive home has not been the Pentagon's strong suit. Last October, the UPI's Mark Benjamin wrote an award-winning series of groundbreaking stories exposing the horrendous treatment soldiers wounded in Iraq were receiving at overcrowded and understaffed facilities in the U.S.

At a time when the Bush Administration seems intent on shutting down veterans centers and closing down VA hospitals, what will happen to traumatized soldiers when they return to the states?

The National Gulf War Resource Center's (NGWRC) Steve Robinson told the audience at the Boulder symposium that all too often soldiers and their families are not adequately cared for after they complete their tours of duty. "We fall short on getting them the proper care, compensation, and readjustment services that they need to recover from the wartime experience," Robinson said. "So if we're going to commit them to fighting for the nation, we need to commit to providing every resource for them when they come home. It's a covenant."

In what will hopefully be the beginning of an effort to keep that covenant, Julie Mock, a Gulf War veteran who had chemical exposures and has had a lot of health problems, and currently a national secretary of the NGWRC, recently met with John Lee, deputy director of Washington state's Department of Veterans Affairs, to talk about developing "transitional programs for those who are coming home that are not functioning well," the Everett (Washington) Herald reported. "We hope this is the seed. We hope this is the beginning," she said.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.

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