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Suicidal Soldiers: The Armed Forces' Stigmatization of the Mentally Ill

Updated on September 30, 2010

Some Numbers

In the wake of the tragedy at Fort Hood, it seems necessary to address the issue of mental health or ill health in the military. Back in July of this year, I read a brief editorial in USA Today that stunned me regarding the rates of both suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2008, there were 143 suicides reported by the Army, the highest rate since such records have been kept. As of this writing, November 8, 2009, there have been 113 suicides and more are suspected to be later identified as suicide as investigations conclude. PTSD diagnoses have climbed to 34,000 individuals.

The very fact that Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged mass murderer who remains on life support, is himself an Army psychiatrist, brings into question both the quality and quantity of mental health workings within the military itself. Mental health professionals in both Iraq and Afghanistan are woefully stressed with caseloads that are staggering. The New York Times reports that of 553,000 troops worldwide, there are currently only 408 psychiatrists available. These inadequacies are not a new phenomenon; in 2005, one Army psychologist based in Germany was the only mental health professional available for 10,000 troops.

A Civilian's View

The outcome of warfare has always been of the utmost importance to warriors, history shows that 'winning' wars is considered the true prize. Unfortunately, individuals become lost within such a paradigm, the objective of the war is foremost. When soldiers exhibit unusual or strange behaviors in the military, they are dealt with in various, conventional ways. Often considered men or women trying to avoid duty, the mentally unstable have encountered severe stigma, most notably in the Army. The means are not considered as important as the end. It's that simple.

Of course this is the view of a civilian. My father was a Naval officer during WWII, and I was born after his retirement. My love of this country and its tenets is certain, and I offer these thoughts from the point of view of an educated social scientist. Stigmatization has always been an effective tool for isolating unwanted individuals, whether suicidal or simply considered 'odd.'

I offer no apology for Hasan, his crimes are unthinkable. My heart here is with the families of those lost to this massacre, to those still suffering his violence, and to those still waging war. The life of a soldier is one unknown to most of us, an existence I find unimaginable. When in the midst of a campaign, the men and women faced with impossible situations seem to find themselves punished by some of the men or women who command them.

Orange Vests

Nothing illustrates this military insensitivity more clearly than the use of orange road guard vests on soldiers assessed to be suicidal. Elspeth Reeve, in an article for The Daily Beast, managed to uncover this Army 'tradition' with frightening clarity. General Pete Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S.Army, responded to Reeve's findings within a week by banning the use of these vests for such identification purposes. While the Army's logic was not without some reason; the vests called attention to those in need, they were meant to be 'helpful,' etc., in the end, the stigmatization of these soldiers was an Army example of cruel labeling, intended, it seemed, to humiliate.

To read her entire article, please check out:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-05-11/suicidal-soldiers/full/

The Breaking Point

While success is the aim of battle, why then do those in command neglect and abuse their own? Battles can only be won if commanders as well as the troops they command work together for a common purpose. The impact of mental illness is increasing tenfold given our global involvements. While Major Hasan was facing his first deployment, others return over and over again with varying results. Individual reactions to wartime are due in part to the personality enlisted. Clearly the statistics point to a huge discrepancy between the mental health professionals and those that are in dire need of their services. The events at Fort Hood show just how out of touch the system can be.


Update: September 30, 2010

There were 4 suicides at Fort Hood over the weekend which will hopefully lead to an all-encompassing investigation on the military base.  These suicides must be stopped.

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    • lorlie6 profile image
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      Laurel Rogers 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Hi Dolores-Readjustment to civilian life must be incredibly difficult. I can't imagine what those soldiers go through.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I have read where it's harder for soldiers coming back from war in modern times. Years back, say WWII, the trip home took a long time. They came home in ships and the return to the 'normal world' was slower. Now, they pop you on a plane and you are whooshed back into life with less time to make the psychological change needed to adapt. I don't see how anybody who experiences war can come back and be the same person as the one who left.

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      The hell of a soldier is something I'll never know, yet I do know many 'soulless' ex-soldiers. Somehow they've managed to survive, but there is an emptiness about them that is chilling.

      Good to see you here.

    • MFB III profile image

      MFB III 7 years ago from United States

      Way over 58,000 men commited suicide after we lost 58,000 msn in Vietnam, war tends to empty ones soul and leaves them in an undeserved hell, and so they take extreme measures to escape its clutches. Too much time spent in an abnormakl world, so that the real world becomes something they can't stand, and the urge to kill can only be curbed by self destruction. Who knows, the survivors can't tell, they lived through and the dead never speak except in statistics, and they are only numbers which make usall grow number. great write.

      ~~~MFB III

    • lorlie6 profile image
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      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Thanks BB, hope to see you again! ;)

    • Business Buddy profile image

      Business Buddy 7 years ago

      Great hub lorlie - powerful writing.

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Yes, you're right Pamela. I've been a member of the Ladies Auxilliary of the local VFW for a number of years now and we try to help them mostly by listening.

      Thanks very much for coming by.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      This is a very important subject. The treatment the troops receive, the respect they need to receive and the continued help they require in their healing process once they get home are all sadly lacking. One of the ladies on here wrote a very good hub, too, which I read a few months ago and it addresses the fact that we as civilians can try to reach out and help when these men and women return home to our area. It's my understanding that one place we can help is called Veterans of Foreign Wars and we can look in our phone book for the local number. These returning soldiers, marines, and all other military veterans need us to reach out to them in a normal day-to-day way when they get home. I have much to learn on this subject. Thank you for your research into it.

    • lorlie6 profile image
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      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Thank you, Cinderella, for your service in Israel, and for coming by.

      I very much appreciate your words.

      Laurel

    • Cinderella1248 profile image

      Cinderella1248 7 years ago

      Post trauma in general isn't addressed properly, even for survivors of crime. In Israel, there is more awareness of proper therapy. Most psychiatrist medicate rather then art and heal the inner child.

      I served in the military. In Israel there was a way to complain over abusive authority, which I did and was justified.

      I think that there isn't enough truth in the system.

      Thank you for writing and sharing such an informative hub in a subject so important.

    • profile image

      peacenhim 7 years ago

      Yes, we have no clue of the severity of the traumas our troops endure. Most individuals would not be able to withstand their stressful routines, mentally or physically.

      It is sad, but mostly tragic that we're losing our youth, good hearted men to the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Suicide. There truly needs to be a balance. My heart goes out to their families.

    • profile image

      penfriend 7 years ago

      It created a mixed feeling of sadness, pride, and deep hearted heavy smile. Thanks for the hub.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Great job on covering this. Sad. And tragic!

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Thanks Justine-I was just reading your Karma piece when you wrote this comment....hmmm.

      I do appreciate your words, this was a strange yet necessary Hub to tackle.

    • profile image

      Justine76 7 years ago

      This truly hit a tender spot..very well done. Thank you so much for standing up about this.

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      You are so right, dohn, and I'm glad that I wrote this piece.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Under the premise that the United States Armed Forces is the strongest in the world, I can see why they wouldn't want others that they are weak in any instance. Those orange vests are an embarrassment for anyone who is forced to wear them. The tragedy of Ft. Hood should be a wake-up call for the rest of the military to rethink their methods of combat and of peacetime. Thank you so much for sharing this lorlie6.

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Indeed.

    • chefaija profile image

      chefaija 7 years ago

      Rest in Peace our sweet angels

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Paraglider: What a great point! Unfortunately one of my uncles-Italian-fought for his divided country during the debacle of WWII, and through all the changing loyalties lost his faith in God. He remains a very sad individual. I'm not certain that belief in a cause leaves soldiers unaffected.

      EYEAM4ANARCHY: The incident of those vests was the pivotal moment for me in deciding to write this hub. I do have to concede that increased/improved diagnoses may be partly responsible for these numbers. Although it seems a trend to cry 'foul' at numbers these days...I'm not sure. I'll think on it, thanks for bringing it up.

      Laura: I appreciate your input-there are an awful lot of soldiers overseas now or home already who are gravely damaged. Can you even imagine simply being there? Not me.

    • Laura du Toit profile image

      Laura du Toit 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for sharing - Frightening statistics and the lack of sufficient support systems is very perturbing. War in itself costs so many people their lives it sad to think that they can survive the actual combat and then lose their lives through a war-related issue.

      Thanks for a informative hub.

    • EYEAM4ANARCHY profile image

      Kelly W. Patterson 7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV.

      I had never heard anything about the orange vests. That's ridiculous. I don't believe that the actual instances of PTSD and mental issues suffered by combat vets have increased, I think it is just a matter of an increase in ability to diagnose and willingness to acknowledge the problem.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I sometimes wonder how much bearing the cause of a deployment has on its effect on the soldiers. By which I mean, an individual's commitment to a just cause might give him the self respect to come through it mentally unscathed, but where the cause is suspect (e.g. securing control of an oil-rich territory for commercial reasons) the resulting loss of confidence in integrity could be harmful. I have no military experience, so cannot speak from first hand knowledge. Well done for raising this issue.

    • lorlie6 profile image
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      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Thanks, lynne and CW, I am very glad I took the risk of total annihilation on EHM!

    • profile image

      Crazdwriter 7 years ago

      I agree with lynne, a great job, lorlie. It was hard reading this one since my husband is military and I just hope that never happens to him nor does anything like Ft. Hood ever happen to him either. It is very scary!

    • profile image

      lynnechandler 7 years ago

      You did a great job on this lorlie. I was shocked at the numbers I heard as the reports were coming in about the Ft. Hood incident. The tragic loss of life was unquestionably avoidable given they were already watching this man. It is truly sad and my heart goes out to the ones who are gone and the families who are trying to work through their grief.

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Oh, SweetiePie, you are so right!

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this event. My heart goes out to those lost loved ones!

    • lorlie6 profile image
      Author

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Thank you so much, someonewhoknows, for stopping by. This piece meant alot to me.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 7 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Amen to that! Lorlie ! Our leaders are out of touch with reality and if they know what they are doing,then their reality is out of touch with the reality the people see.