A shocking and terrifying report by the US Army released last week indicates that in 2008, more soldiers would have committed suicide than died in combat just last month. According to a non-disclosed Army official talking to CNN, “24 soldiers are believed to have committed suicide in January alone — six times as many as killed themselves in January 2008, according to statistics released Thursday. The Army said it already has confirmed seven suicides, with 17 additional cases pending that it believes investigators will confirm as suicides for January.”

the US death toll in Iraq.

the US death toll in Iraq.

Those numbers may not be tremendous on their own, but the comparative statistics are showing a strong, continuous increase in the span of just one year. If the Army claims to be desperate and confused about the situation, not understanding what is going on, several causes appeared to Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard. Help with mental health issues is often interrupted by deployements or deplacements; the lack of stability in a soldier’s life is cause for a lack of continuous treatment. However, a delayed availability of medicine is only a symptom, not the cause.

Like most people, soldiers are affected by seasonal disorders in the winter, and separation from their loved ones can be cause for insecurity. “When people are apart you have infidelity, financial problems, substance abuse and child behavioral problems,” Platoni said. “The more deployments, the more it is exacerbated.” The biggest source of concern remains a partial or complete ignorance and denial of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) often experimented by soldiers based in a conflict zone and submitted to a chronic fear for their lives and that of their colleagues. War trauma might have exploded following the Vietnam War and been socially accepted like a regular occurrance in soldiers, support is still rare among the ranks. Platoni explained that although there’s been a considerable effort to train military leaders, “there is still a huge problem with leadership who shame them when they seek treatment.”

This archaic conception of a soldier’s lifestyle and obstacles in the way of their mental well-being is conducive to a wave of suicides, in the bases, on the field or when they’re allowed back home.  Depression, substance abuse and feelings of alienation are not so rare among young soldiers. Aware of these alarming numbers, the Army said it would create a servicewide training program to raise awareness on the various mental health problems a soldier might face. The month-long program, going from February 15 to March 15, is aimed at identifying individuals that might be at risk, and informing soldiers on the various options they have to help them face a potential problem. A specific teaching program on suicide prevention will run from March to June at all unit levels. In the Marines, where suicide rates also increased in 2008, a program called Battlemind has been implemented to help soldiers and their families cope with the stress relative to deployement in a conflict zone, as well as its long-lasting effects, often forgotten about. The US Army also signed an agreement in October with the National Institute of Mental Health in order to conduct research on suicidal tendancies in soldiers, be they in the National Reserve or in duty.

The “Vietnam War Syndrome” has spread onto Iraq veterans in the recent years.  A study recently showed that over 20% of soldiers developed post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety in combat, but hardly half of them ever sought treatment for their condition. Some of them were denied medical benefits, as PTSD was not recognized as a disability by the Army. The National Veterans Legal Services had to file suit, forcing the Army to recognize what is a widespread condition among returning soldiers, crippling them in their daily civilian life and possibly endangering them should they return to combat. “I experience firsthand the horrors of war”, Juan Perez, an Iraq veteran, confided to CNN two months ago.  “My expectation was that the military would be there for me, and my country would be there for me. Instead, the way I was treated felt more like a slap to the face.” The Purple Heart, a medal awarded to soldiers wounded in combat, will not be handed out to those suffering from long term PTSD.  Psychological wounds are not that easy to heal. The Army is still debating whether mental injuries deserve honor and respect.

Suffering from chronic fear and isolation to the point of taking one’s life is not “consistant with the purpose” and would “denigrate the medal”. It is not yet accepted that a soldier can lose more than a limb on the battlefield.