Supporting Our Troops: Once More, With Feeling

The NYT has an article on the Army’s efforts to deal with violence by soldiers returning from Iraq — apparently, there have been nine murders by soldiers back from Iraq in Fort Carson alone, and rape and domestic violence are also up. Three bits from the story are particularly awful. First:

“The latest killing was in October, when the police say Robert H. Marko, an infantryman, raped and killed Judilianna Lawrence, a developmentally disabled teenager he had met online. Specialist Marko believed that on his 21st birthday he would become the “Black Raptor” — half-man, half-dinosaur, a confidential Army document shows. The Army evaluated him three times for mental health problems but cleared him for combat each time.”

I would have thought that someone who thought he was going to become half-dinosaur on his 21st birthday was plainly psychotic. You have to wonder just how low the bar for mental health is if a soldier like that manages to clear it not just once, but three times. I find the idea that we let soldiers with that kind of psychiatric problems wander around Iraq with guns terrifying.

Second, about a man who tried to commit suicide while in Iraq and was sent home with a back injury and a diagnosis of PTSD:

“”The first words out of the Mental Health Authority was, ‘we are severely understaffed,’” Mr. Needham said in an e-mail message to an officer at Walter Reed. “If you’re suicidal we can see you twice a week, otherwise once a week.”

Fort Carson assured Mike Needham that his son was receiving proper care. But during his son’s visit home during the Thanksgiving break, Mr. Needham found him smearing camouflage-colored makeup on his face and frantically sharpening a stick with a kitchen knife.”

This is a soldier who had tried to shoot himself in Iraq. He eventually beat a woman to death. Under the circumstances, outpatient care is probably not a good idea, but if you can’t take him in for observation, you need to see him more than twice a week. Moreover, he would absolutely have to have a network of people to check up on him. If someone missed the seriousness of his problems initially, the episode with the makeup and the kitchen knife should have made it clear. If the Army and/or the VA was too understaffed to do right by him and his fellow soldiers, then someone should be held accountable for that fact.

Third, about the son of Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who has been in command at Fort Carson since 2007:

“His 21-year-old son, a top R.O.T.C. cadet, hanged himself in 2003 after battling depression. He had stopped taking his antidepressants because he did not want to disclose his illness, fearing such an admission would harm his chances for a career as an Army doctor, General Graham said.

“He was embarrassed,” the general said.”

To his credit, Maj. Gen. Graham is taking this problem seriously, and so is the Army. However, they need to do a lot more to deal with mental health issues. They could start by putting rules in place that absolutely ensure that if a soldier seeks treatment for some mental health issue that does not require that others know (the way, for instance, being homicidal would), that soldier’s confidentiality will be respected, and that ensured, insofar as possible, that that confidentiality extended to the fact of having sought psychiatric treatment. In a perfect world, no soldier would be embarrassed to have sought help — it would be a sign that he was responsible enough to try to deal with his problems. But until that world arrives, making sure that when possible, soldiers can seek psychiatric help confidentially would be a very good start.

It’s no good for anyone if soldiers are wandering around with untreated psychiatric problems. It is obviously bad for the soldiers. It’s bad for their friends and families: it’s hard enough to know that your loved one is in Iraq without knowing that he or she is literally insane there. (Imagine the friends and family of Specialist Marko, as his messages home got more and more bizarre.) And, of course, it can be very bad for any disabled teenagers or Iraqis they might happen to encounter.

But it’s also bad for the Army: any institution works better if its members are not suffering from untreated depression or PTSD. While it’s impossible to ensure that none of its members will ever fail to seek treatment, it’s just good sense to make sure that there are no institutional obstacles to their doing so. If soldiers worry that getting help will damage their careers, the Army as a whole will suffer.

Besides, it’s a matter of basic humanity.

The Army prides itself on taking care of its own. Here’s hoping that Maj. Gen. Graham and officers like him succeed in getting it to address the needs of soldiers with psychiatric problems better than they have done to date.

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