By Adeyemi Oshunrinade
The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December 2011 was a memorable occasion for the entire nation and Army families desperate to see their loved ones come home. With about 4,500 soldiers dead and more than 33,000 wounded, those fortunate to make it home alive thanked their stars though, still bothered by the thought of losing friends and colleagues they fought along with in Iraq.
The return home for many of the soldiers was supposed to signal an end to the war and the beginning of a new life in America, but for some of the soldiers, it marked the beginning of a war within, the war of suicide. Based on the July 23, 2012 cover story of Time Magazine titled “ONE A DAY,” more American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan war. Daily, American soldiers are taking their own lives and despite all efforts, the Military has not been able to find a solution to the high rate of suicides since both wars began.
A recent article on Army suicide by Mike Fayette on Policymic.com show “more U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there.” The report also revealed that suicide rate jumped 80% from 2004 to 2008 and has increased by 18% in 2012. To make matter worse, suicide has surpassed auto accidents as the leading cause of death among U.S. soldiers. According to report in a July 30, 2010 edition of the Financial Times, “the suicide rate in the U.S. army now exceeds the rate across the U.S. as a whole.” More U.S. soldiers are taking their own lives caused by stress of the war based on an in-depth study by the army, on the effect of nine years of war on American troops.
The report also revealed that “if deaths associated with high risk behaviors including drink-driving and drug overdoses are taken into account, more soldiers are dying by their own hand than in combat.” No doubt the U.S. army has been overused and burdened by fighting two wars at the same time in Afghanistan and the Iraq war which ended in December 2011; some of the soldiers have answered the call of duty twice or more and besides the physical combat many have experienced, combat soldiers also deal with the emotional and psychological warfare that in some occasions prove too difficult to conquer on returning home from their tours.
Some have returned home to realize they are no longer what they used to be; the love and affection from their families have changed and many find it hard to deal with the trauma of the war they left behind in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on report by the Financial Times, about 160 active-duty American soldiers committed suicide in the 2009 fiscal year, putting the army suicide rate at a record 20.2 per 100,000 exceeding the national average of 19.2 for the first time.
Looking at the high suicide rate, it is fair to say other factors such as physical wounds sustained in combat contribute largely to the problem; many able-bodied young men, have returned home to find themselves confined to a wheelchair or having to depend on one family member or the other to provide daily care. Some army wives have filed for divorce because they feel they have lost their army husbands to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. When a soldier can’t deal with losing his wife and children, he takes it on drugs and alcohol; eventually, depression sets in and then the final chapter suicide.
When soldiers return from Afghanistan or Iraq, they expect to find themselves in a better financial situation; after all, they have just served their nation but the fact is, many return home to a worse situation. With the current state of the economy and unemployment, some returnees could not find work and there are employers unwilling to hire veterans of both wars out of fear of dealing with the emotion and trauma a veteran may experience as a civilian.
Some veterans depend fully on disability check from the army which is never enough to support the family and when a soldier feels he is not getting the support he deserves, he may open himself to obsessive thoughts which sometimes generate both mental and emotional avalanche, causing suicide. Many servicemen and women have suffered in silence due to denial by the military to treat their cases; some have had their complaint of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), ignored and declared unfounded by the army while the war was ongoing in Iraq; Why? because the military did not want any shortage of soldiers to diminish its fighting force. Such cases could have been resolved early, had the military taken heed to do so.
The use of antidepressants and painkillers have skyrocketed in the past years since both wars began, with more than 100,000 soldiers on some form of depression, anxiety or pain prescription. The army has invested about $2 billion on mental health and trauma in an effort to alleviate the problems but so far, there seems to be no end to suicides in the army, which largely may be due to lack of proper attention to high-risk behavior and the absence of proactive move on diagnosing mental health issues at the early stage.
In essence, while the army may be doing its best to lower suicide rate in the military, the increasing number of suicides is an indication more needs to be done; there seems to be a huge problem with the way the army leadership works to mitigate mental health issues in the military. There should be a policy change on programs and services created to cater for servicemen and women stricken by mental health related problems. Effort should be made to encourage healthy behavior among soldiers and the administration working together with the Defense Department should endeavor to support military families whenever help is required.
The Wounded Warrior Project and other independent organizations must do more to eradicate the scourge of suicide in the U.S. army and the society at large must do its part by contributing financially, to projects that will help rehabilitate soldiers and reintegrate them back to their normal lives. Army families also have a role to play by offering both emotional and physical support when a wounded soldier returns home. Family members are more likely to notice change in a soldier’s behavior and by seeking help at the right time may, help prevent suicide thoughts. A soldier should also do his/her part to speak up and seek help when such is needed, without fear of being labeled “weak.”
Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is an expert in general law, foreign relations and the United Nations; follow on Twitter @san0670.