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Pentagon downplays GI suicides

Published Feb 8, 2009 7:44 AM

The Pentagon reported in January that “Suicides among soldiers rose for the fourth straight year, exceeding the rate for civilians for the first time in decades.” (Associated Press, Jan. 29) A graph showed the increase—from about 80 GI suicides in 2003 to almost 150 in 2008.

Despite this admission, the Pentagon was downplaying the suicide story. The problem is much bigger, according to a new book by Iraq war correspondent Aaron Glantz: “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.”

A November 2007 CBS News investigation, says Glantz, found that 120 veterans kill themselves every week–over 5,000 per year. Glantz cites internal Veterans Administration documents validating these figures: “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans” of all wars, said the VA’s chief of mental health, Ira Katz.

Glantz says the Pentagon’s report, covering only active-duty GIs, is an underestimate “in part because they only include confirmed suicides. Many suicides are simply called accidents.” Garrett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper in Iraq, told Glantz a woman in his unit “died when she shot herself in the chest with her M-16. The Army said it was an accident, but you can’t accidentally shoot yourself in the chest with an M-16... .”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder afflicts nearly half a million Iraq and Afghanistan war vets. It is a prime cause of suicide, accidental death, and death at the hands of police—which some veterans provoke as a form of suicide.

Glantz tells of Sgt. James Dean, who was shot by Maryland state troopers on Christmas night in 2006 while sitting alone in his father’s farmhouse. Dean had returned home from 18 months in Afghanistan with what the VA diagnosed as PTSD: “The patient states he feels very nervous, has a hard time sleeping, feels nauseous in the a.m., and loses his temper a lot, ‘real bad.’” The evaluation mentions that Sgt. Dean “was nearby an explosion that destroyed a Humvee with four GIs killed in front of his eyes. ... The patient is tired of feeling bad.”

Dean “barricaded himself inside his farmhouse. ... He called his sister and told her he ‘just couldn’t do it anymore’ and fired a gunshot. Jamie’s sister called the emergency services hotline and the police showed up in force. ... Just past midnight ... a police sharpshooter shot Jamie Dean dead.”

It might have cost less, and saved a life, to mobilize a psychological crisis team, but that’s not the police way, or the Army way.

According to Glantz, by August 2008 “the Pentagon listed more than 78,000 service members as wounded, injured or ill; 324,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had already visited a VA facility to receive health care for their injuries, and close to 300,000 (more than 30 percent of eligible veterans) had filed for disability.

“Physical brain damage is perhaps the most common injury; the RAND Corporation estimates that more than 320,000 veterans have experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI) while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many observers call TBI the ‘signature injury’ of the Iraq War because it happens so often after a soldier is hit with a gunshot or a blast from a roadside bomb.”

Rather than accept responsibility for the suffering of its veterans, the military machine punishes them. Take the case of Specialist Shaun Manuel, who was ordered to do a second tour in Iraq on the heels of losing his infant son.

Glantz tells the story: “Manuel never filed paperwork to medically excuse himself from the deployment. Instead, he withdrew and buried himself in alcohol. He estimates he drank three fifths of liquor a day. At one point, his wife had to call the police during a domestic disturbance. In response, the Army threw him in a local county jail and kicked him out of the military with a bad-conduct discharge, which will deny him medical benefits he might have been able to use to get his life back together again.”

The parents of Corporal Jeffrey Lucey of Belchertown, Mass., tell of filing a lawsuit alleging “wrongful death, medical malpractice, pain and suffering, and other damages” caused by the VA’s “negligence, carelessness and lack of skill” in treating their son, who hanged himself in his parents’ home in June 2004.

The Marine Corps had told Lucey’s parents it was “normal for veterans to need some time to adjust after their return from the war zone.” Lucey’s father said the Marine Corps told them, “Whatever you do, don’t force them or pressure them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing.”

Maybe the whole military establishment and their civilian commanders should memorize that warning. Perhaps members of the House and Senate should be required to say it over and over again before passing legislation authorizing the president to use troops overseas.