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Mental Health and the American Military

Updated on September 2, 2011

One Man's Story of a Failing System

(names have been changed to protect privacy but this story is real)

Two years ago Jacob was a happy sailor with everything going for him. He was stationed on a tropical island where his ship was undergoing work in the shipyard that left him with time to spend with his new fiance, and he could look forward to an upcoming shore duty after two long deployments. Today he is out of the military and struggling to make ends meet after the Defense Financial Accounting Service ruled he will not receive a severance bonus and must actually repay them for his training. The root of the problem: the U.S. military's appalling treatment and respect for mental health.


Trouble in Paradise

Jacob was stationed in the Pacific for fourteen months, after six years of active sea service that took him away from family and girlfriend Emily approximately 75% of the time. The shipyard duty on the island gave him a rare opportunity to spend more time with Emily than any other period since high school. When he proposed and she accepted, Jacob felt like his life was coming together at last. He was a valued member of his division and up for promotion, he was making excellent money for his age and he was going to be married to an intelligent, beautiful woman. But cracks began to appear in the dream as he and Emily spent more time together. In the years they had spent apart they had also grown apart. Without formally ending their engagement, they decided to separate for several months and Emily returned to her family on the mainland.

When Jacob's work in the Pacific was done he was transferred to a shore billet in New England and asked Emily to join him there to try to work things out. When she refused to leave her family several states away, Jacob knew he had to make a decision. He traveled to see her and put everything on the line. In the end he broke off the engagement. Shortly after, Emily chose to commit suicide. From her writings and drawings left behind, there were many factors weighing on her decision but it was a devastating blow to Jacob and his family. He suffered a lot of blame from Emily's sisters and friends, and weighed with his own guilty he struggled to continue living a normal life.

Returning to work, Jacob performed his job with exemplary conduct, earning recommendations from his superior officers, but his personal life was a wreck. He wasn't eating, he was barely sleeping, he was spending money unadvisedly and failing to keep his apartment clean. Though aware of the recent situation, the Navy made no effort to provide support in his time of need. One night Jacob found himself having a long conversation with a firearm in his apartment. Ultimately realizing he didn't want his mother to get the same phone call he'd gotten on Emily's death, he sought mental help from the Navy medical facility at his base.

Suicide was the cause of death for over 430 service personnel in 2010 - more than the number of fatal casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Suicide was the cause of death for over 430 service personnel in 2010 - more than the number of fatal casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. | Source

Road to Recovery

Jacob was diagnosed with event on-set depression from a combination of Emily's death and from witnessing the deaths of two crew members on his ship a year earlier (for which neither he nor his crew were ever provided mental or emotional support). Proscribed medicine and placed on suicide watch, he responded eagerly and well to treatment and continually stated he wanted to remain in the Navy. However, the medication he was placed on disqualified him from operating machinery in his job. He was temporarily reassigned to run the transient division while doctors assessed his mental health to determine what to do with him. Although no longer a suicide threat, his psychiatrist felt it was best if he be transferred to a base close to his family so he could have their support and officially recommended such.

After six months, Jacob was transferred to another base - but it wasn't near his family. It was the closest post with a larger hospital that could theoretically better provide for his health needs. Only, by this time, according to Jacob and his doctors, he was fit for full duty. He had even gained a new girlfriend who was a positive force in his life. Now fit for full duty, officially cured and loving life once more, Jacob continued his track record of excellent work. Assigned to an administrative position for which he had no formal training, he still won Sailor of the Quarter and was highly respected by everyone in his command. But as time stretched on, Jacob realized he would never get his old job back and prepared to go through training to do something else, still intending to remain in the Navy. All that was shattered when his request to transfer to a different job code was denied, and then everything went downhill.

Above Command Decisions

Although the local command and doctors actually treating Jacob witnessed and felt he was fit for full duty, the decision of what to do with Jacob did not rest in their hands. Everything concerning his status in the Navy had to go all the way up the chain of command and back down again. Despite the endorsement of everyone who actually interacted with him, the following actions were taken against Jacob:

  • Stripped of job rate and qualifications
  • Loss of pay resulting from loss of qualifications
  • Prevention of promotion
  • Denial of cross-rate to acquire a new job in the Navy
  • Termination of naval contract via 10-day letter (this happened 1 week before his wedding, from which he was forced to cancel the honeymoon)
  • Reclamation of re-enlistment bonus, an action in violation of his contract as his departure from the Navy was medical in nature.
  • He received no pay for his last two weeks of active duty service and is being forced to repay his last month's pay in addition to the above bonus
  • When he filed a waiver to prevent his severance pay being seized as partial repayment of the enlistment bonus, it was denied.

Today Jacob is a bitter veteran who wants little to nothing to do with the military. He and his new wife struggle to pay their bills after missing an entire month's paycheck and being forced to move across the country to live with family and seek new employment in a down economy. They have hired an expensive lawyer using their retirement savings and money donated from family to try to fight the illegal seizure of Jacob's pay and severance but the process will take months if not years to resolve. Dreams of buying a house with their severance and starting a family are on hold. Instead of a proud veteran using his skills and resources to help the economy, Jacob feels like a drain on the system, stuck in a position he never expected or wanted. He says, "I feel like the government would rather I killed myself than sought help".


Why did this happen?

The question Jacob and his wife ask themselves daily is "why is this happening to us?" Why would the Navy take an intelligent, motivated, highly trained, decorated individual and discard them like so much refuse on the side of the road? Especially considering his doctor's advice was to give him his old job back?

Mental health still carries a stigma in the military. The effects of PTSD are known but not fully understood and many soldiers feel that they are losing face if they seek assistance for mental health issues. The number of staff to provide mental health to military forces is depressingly low. Despite confidentiality of medical records, many soldiers feel there is no privacy in what they share with a psychologist or psychiatrist and are unwilling to impede their income or advancement by admitting fears or problems. This is a problem both at the individual level and at a command level - instead of admitting that there are more problems with mental health in the military than currently reported, the military would rather flush these individuals out of the system than provide them care and take a risk they might relapse.

In the wake of the military shooting in Texas and considering the situations and supplies a soldier has access to, this may seem prudent behavior. But it ignores the human factor so important to mental healing. And in a case such as this, what better way to destroy newly acquired mental health than by piling on stress and financial burdens. Jacob could understand the Navy cutting him loose after ten years of honorable service, but he can't understand why they're trying to make him pay for the privilege. The events in his life that prompted his depression were out of his control and now he feels like his future is too. "Everything I do is tied to the failure to receive my severance package and the fear of having to repay my bonus. I tried going to my Congressperson but they weren't able to help. My wife even wrote the President directly. A lawyer was our only recourse and our lives are on hold until that's resolved."

His wife says, "Even if DFAS had ruled we didn't get the severance but we didn't have to pay back the bonus, I could live with that. But they essentially lay Jacob off, give him no resources to live on until he finds a job and expect him to pay them $700 a month! I'm grateful every day he took that gun out of his mouth. You would think the Navy would commend someone for being responsible. You would think they'd rather pay us a $13,000 severance than a $400,000 life insurance policy. But no. The bonus they want us to repay is before taxes and plus interest too, so if we end up having to pay it, we'll be paying them more than what Jacob got in the first place - and we'll be paying them back for installments he received while he was still doing the job for which he received the bonus."

The future for Jacob's family is unclear but he's not the only soldier going through a similar situation. Despite a clause in the bonus contract that stipulates it can't be reclaimed in medical cases, DFAS attempts to recover every bonus it can because most people are unwilling or unable to fight them. There have been cases of soldiers signing on for bonuses and suddenly developing mental ailments like claustrophobia or depression that allow them to leave the military with their bonus, without serving. But that was clearly not the case in Jacob's story and shows just how much work needs to be done to clarify mental health issues in the military.

The Bottom Line

The ultimate crux of the issue here is money. It is expensive to provide mental health professionals to the military and in this time of financial unease, the government is cutting the defense budget any way it can. They are also trying to reclaim any money they can from soldiers who they wash out of the program.

But suicide rates continue to rise and since 2009, suicide has been the leading cause of death for military personnel. The Army especially just had the a new record number of suicides ever in one month at 32 for the month of June, 2011. Military branches are very tightly-knit circles and news travels fast in them, so stories like what Jacob is going through are turn offs to others who might be considering seeking mental assistance. Combine that with a mountainous amount of bureaucratic paperwork, and the knowledge that your fate rests in the hands of office workers who will never meet you and care little about you, it is no surprise suicide rates in all military branches are increasing even as combat overseas is winding down and the month of August saw no combat-related deaths in Iraq at all. Mental health issues shouldn't be an automatic strike out for a service member, nor a windfall. A case-by-case approach is necessary and needed for the health of our service members and their families, and an open dialogue and no retaliation policy is essential to facilitating this approach. Otherwise there will be a lot more phone calls like Emily's, where death overruled life because of antiquated policy.


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