The Daily Star — Service men and women continue to put their lives on the line daily for our country and our allies worldwide. Although much of the media coverage has turned to other topics, they still face the struggles of living in combat situations away from their families and homes.
Many in our military have faced multiple tours into combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and these protracted wars have taken their toll, physically and mentally, on our soldiers.
Among the effects of these long-term military engagements is a recent dramatic increase in suicides among active-duty personnel. According to Pentagon officials, 38 soldiers killed themselves in July, the worst month for suicides since the Army began releasing figures in 2009.
This is twice the number of troops killed in Afghanistan this month. And a recent U.S. Army report found that the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers has grown from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2004 to about 24 per 100,000 in 2011. By June of this year, more active-duty troops had died of suicide than in combat.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, who is in charge of trying to improve care of troops’ mental health, said, “Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced my 37 years in the Army.”
To combat this steep rise in suicides, the military has made strides to hire more mental health professionals to treat soldiers in the field and veterans at home. But, as Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, said in a story by The Associated Press, “I don’t think we can throw psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers at the problem and make it that much better.”
We must help break the stigma in our military that seeking help for depression or other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder is a sign of weakness. Our service men and women need to know that the strength they showed in defending our country is not diminished by getting assistance or talking to someone about their experiences. And we must make sure our government sees caring for the mental health of our nation’s soldiers and veterans as a top priority.
Our nation’s leaders also must re-evaluate our policies for the number and duration of tours our soldiers must face, making a conscious effort to protect the physical and mental strain on those we send to war.
A greater effort also must be made to help our veterans return to civilian life after their service is complete. Whether this is through social workers, jobs, training or physical rehabilitation, we must show our gratitude for our veterans’ service by aiding in their desires for a return to normality.