Guest Post By Don McCasland
As a 3-Tour 101st Airborne Division Iraqi Freedom Veteran and current Director of Programs at Soldiers And Families Embraced (SAFE) in Clarksville,Tennessee. I read the article titled “Combat-Suicide Link Debunked” (August 11, 2013) with a mixture of shock, horror, frustration, and anger. This article, as well as the military PTSD study published in the JAMA cited failed to address PTSD in a meaningful way.
We should take note that the study was commissioned and financed by the Department of Defense, and conducted by active duty and civilian researchers and psychiatrists. Not exactly an impartial, third-party group. The DOD researchers have a vested interest in disputing PTSD claims. What did the study indicate? In summation, it states that the multiple deployments, the military’s handling of the aftermath of year after year of deployments as well as related stressors, and a lack of proper mental healthcare do not contribute to increased suicide rates.
Another issue with this flawed “comprehensive study” is the data referenced is now outdated. According to the article, “…people from all branches took part, including active-duty service members, reservists and retirees, and they were followed from 2001 to 2008…”. Researchers used data from 2001-2008 to address military suicide rates in 2013. The Department of Defense is touting this study as definitive proof that they have been right about the issues of suicide all along by using a study that draws from surveys and numbers that are five to six years old? I can assure you, even an new undergraduate student at APSU writing a research paper knows better than to use data over five years old when there is more recent information available.
As I continued to read in dismay at the study's findings, the author stated, “At the same time, there was an increase in the number of people with mental illness in the military. The reason for that is unclear." The lack of clarity is not a mystery to any who have served in combat. There is a direct link to life stressors and mental health. Being in the military in a war zone is a major life stressor that will affect your mental health.
In a study published by the US Army in 2010 called “Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention Report 2010” GEN Peter Chiarelli, the Army Vice Chief of Staff from 2008-2012, stated in the introduction that in 2009 “…we had 160 active duty suicide deaths, with 239 across the total Army (including Reserve Component). Additionally, there were 146 active duty deaths related to high risk behavior including 74 drug overdoses. This is tragic!”
He goes on to say “…Some form of high risk behavior (self-harm, illicit drug use, binge drinking, criminal activity, etc.) was a factor in most of these deaths. When we examined the circumstances behind these deaths, we discovered a direct link to increased life stressors and increased risk behavior. For some, the rigors of service, repeated deployments, injuries, and separations from Family resulted in a sense of isolation, hopelessness and life fatigue.”
Interesting to note, these are figures are from the same time period that the “new comprehensive study” was conducted. And yet the authors of the study claim they were "unclear" as to the increase in mental health issues in the military.This same 2010 report clearly states- “…While 80,403 entry-level waivers occurred from FY 2004 – FY 2009, the number of entry-level separations decreased dramatically. This, in essence, created a net gain of approximately 10,000 Soldiers who might not have been eligible for entry into the Army before 2004. Of the 80,403 waivers granted, 47,478 were granted to individuals with a history of drug, alcohol, misdemeanor crimes, or serious criminal misconduct”
In 2008, a RAND study stated that “…Of those who have a mental disorder and also sought medical care for that problem, just over half received minimally adequate treatment.” Currently, there is an abundance of evidence that shows us that when people can not seek treatment for whatever reason, the first reaction from many is to “self medicate” by using drugs or alcohol to lessen the pain or to help them forget in a desperate attempt to cope with traumatic life events and stressors. Many active duty and veterans struggle with this constantly.
This study is presented as the “end all, be all” with no regards to the reasons for the ever increasing military-wide suicide rates. I am taken aback at the irresponsibility and insensitivity of the headline stating that the combat-suicide rate connection has been once and for all debunked.
I served with the 101st for 7 years before my retirement after multiple deployments. I personally know three individuals I served with who committed suicide. Now, in my role as a Social Worker, I see many clients and their family members who are on the brink of committing suicide or have actually done so.
At a time when suicides are taking a toll on the 101st Airborne, what glaring headlines do we read from the Leaf Chronicle? "Combat -Suicide Link Debunked". Yes, a base that is struggling with the aftermath of being at war for two decades is told that combat trauma is not the cause of the suicides.The Leaf-Chronicle's article told those of us that have served our country that we are dealing with personality failings, addictions, and the inability to maintain a healthy relationships.
Shame. Shame on the military for attempting to shift the blame to people who served honorably and bravely. Shame on the Leaf-Chronicle for failing to dig deeper and ask the most basic of questions prior to publishing this article. Shame.
Photos: Don McCasland (used with permission)
Sources sited for this article: Army Research Laboratories (ARL), the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (CHPPM), National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), the RAND Corporation and the Veterans Administration.