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Carissa Picard - Advocate, Attorney and Writer
Editor's Note: This article was written a little more than a year ago by Ms. Carissa Picard - a proud, loyal and dedicated yet concerned Army Spouse. Ms. Picard is currently stationed at Fort Hood. After today's tragedy, she requested that the Military Family Network rerun her original story with the hope that "the mental health of our servicemembers should be a priority for everyone: the American public, Congress, and the DoD." The Military Family Network supports the care and wellbeing of our troops and their families. As a result, we respectfully oblige her request so that those who perished or were wounded in today's tragedy do not do so in vain.
"Gunmen Kill 12, Wound 31 on Fort Hood"
"Donna Miles - American Forces Press Service"
"WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2009 - President Barack Obama condemned the fatal shooting rampage today on Fort Hood, Texas, that left 12 soldiers dead and another 31 wounded, and promised full-scale support to get to the bottom of what happened and help the Fort Hood community recover from the tragedy."
When Army Strong Snaps
At 8:40 am on the morning of September 8, 2008, a young Fort Hood soldier shot and killed his young commanding officer and himself in front of dozens of witnesses and police officers. Both soldiers were assigned to 1st Cavalry Division, which had just returned from a fifteen-month tour in Iraq this past December and is already preparing to leave again in the winter.
The facts surrounding this case are unclear. Some neighbors said he had been AWOL when his sergeant and lieutenant came to see him but the public affairs office said that he was on transitional leave and the visit was pertaining to stolen equipment. (Apparently this soldier was being separated from the Army. I am extremely curious as to what kind of discharge this soldier was getting. In light of what he did on Monday, I would be very surprised if he was not exhibiting "red flag" behavior prior to this incident; i.e., engaging in acts of misconduct or other self-destructive behavior signaling that he was a soldier in distress.) According to one eyewitness, the police were called when a significant amount of ammunition was seen through the blinds of the soldier's living room window. By the time the police got there, however, the soldier had stepped outside of his apartment to talk to his lieutenant. Once outside, he shot his lieutenant, exchanged fire with the police, and then shot himself. Autopsies are being performed on both soldiers.
Ironically, last week the Army recognized National Suicide Prevention Week. The Army also has a "battle buddy" program/policy to combat suicide. Soldiers are teamed up in pairs and they are supposed to keep an eye on each other. (I wonder if this soldier had a battle buddy?)
Despite these efforts, the number of Army suicides in 2008 is expected to surpass the number of suicides in 2007, continuing its post 9/11 annual record-breaking trend (with each new year breaking the record of the one preceding it). For the first time since the Vietnam War, soldier suicides are expected to exceed the civilian suicide rate. That being said, one needs to look not just at active duty Army suicide rates in general, but at combat veteran suicide rates in particular. Only about half of our soldiers have been deployed to a combat zone. Once a soldier is an OIF/OEF (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom) veteran (i.e., served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan), the chances of committing suicide increase significantly. VA Secretary Peake testified before Congress in May. Young male OIF/OEF veterans (18-35) are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts and young female OIF/OEF veterans are three times as likely to commit suicide. Suicides are not the problem, however, they are a symptom of the problem: the Army does not put nearly as much emphasis on the mental health and well-being of its soldiers as it does on their physical health and well-being. Yet after waging seven years of ground warfare in Afghanistan and five years of ground warfare in Iraq, one would think that the military would realize that servicemember psychological stability is esseential to unit readiness and troop morale – not to mention public safety.
The Army says that it appreciates the importance of mental health but as an advocate I have seen unit after unit choose to punish a post-combat soldier for misconduct rather than help that soldier get evaluated and treated for PTSD (as well as traumatic brain injuries). This is a choice that Commanders make and it is a choice that completely undermines the Department of the Army's own messaging on the importance of good mental health. Nonetheless, this is happening at Army bases all over the country.
Of course, in defense of the Department of Defense, as an institution it is doing as much as it can in light of the demands being placed upon it by our Executive and Legislative branches (to maintain two fronts in the Middle East using only our all volunteer force). Individual Commanders are being pressured to maintain their unit's numbers for deployments. The "mission" ultimately, is preparing for and engaging in these wars. The mission does not include post-combat care, which is often viewed as the VA's responsibility. Well, therein lies the rub when it comes to these "invisible" injuries. If servicemembers separate from the military without proper diagnosis, intervention, and treatment of their PTSD and TBI, their mental and neuropsychological health is compromised and their behavior may have already deteriorated to a point that makes the idea that they can get "fixed" at the VA more theoretical than realistic. Moreover, some would argue that the VA's track record on mental health care is even worse than the DoD's.
Consequently, if we are going to continue to engage in these prolonged military conflicts overseas, then the mental health of our servicemembers should be a priority for everyone: the American public, Congress, and the DoD. Mental health care and treatment has to be generously funded by Congress and aggressively utilized by the Department of Defense. If we don't, then this won't be the last time you will read a headline like this.
Copyright 2009 Carissa Picard. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or The Military Family Network.