2009: The Year of the Soldier Suicide

The author is a former U.S. Marine Corp sergeant and a founding member of March Forward!, an organization of veterans and service members organizing against war and racism.

The year 2009 turned out to be one of the deadliest for U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen/women and marines, but not for the reasons one would automatically assume. According to a Congressional Quarterly compilation in late November 2009, 334 active-duty military service men and women have taken their own lives in 2009 alone. These numbers, as horrible as they are, come as no surprise given that many of us are now serving in our fourth, fifth or even sixth combat deployment. More service members lost their lives due to suicide than in battle in Afghanistan, where 312 perished in the war's deadliest year.

The trauma, anxiety and depression most soldiers experience cannot accurately be measured by military psychologists, who are more concerned with quick fixes in order to return us to the battle field. The officer corps and their civilian overseers have little concern for the mental, physical and emotional toll these endless tours of forced occupations take on us—the enlisted ranks, the sector within the military that does all of the work, nearly all of the dying and the majority of the suffering. The nature of these U.S. wars, of brutal and genocidal occupation against the Iraqi and Afghani peoples, and the forced mission of occupation, is the greatest cause of a soldier’s trauma.

The soldier’s family and society also suffer, with a significant rise in domestic violence with each passing year of the occupations. Most soldiers are reluctant to seek treatment due to the associated stigma in the prevailing hyper-macho culture of the military. Many of us risk losing our security clearances and our jobs if we seek treatment for our mental and emotional injuries.

A 2008 Rand Corporation study revealed that 300,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder, while 320,000 reported probable traumatic brain injuries. Both conditions greatly increase the likelihood of attempted suicide.

The Pentagon’s interests are not ours

Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has said, "These numbers are just staggering and, tragically, are an indication that we are simply not doing the job of providing adequate mental health care for both our active-duty service people and our veterans." It is much worse than just a matter of simply not doing an adequate job. These suicides are the result of the criminal negligence of military commanders and politicians who are more concerned with controlling the vast resources of Iraq and Afghanistan than the effects these wars are having on us.

As high as the 334 military suicides may sound, these numbers do not include veterans who have been discharged from the military. The VA claims that between 2002 and 2006 an average of 53 veterans committed suicide per year, however these numbers do not include the great number of us who are not enrolled, mostly because of denial of access, in the VA’s health system. Many of us are denied treatment for PTSD by the VA itself.

In April of 2009, blog.Salon.com, posted a secret recording it had recently acquired from a soldier questioning his recent diagnosis by his pyschologist. After asking why he was diagnosed with an "anxiety disorder" rather than PTSD. Douglas McNinch, the soldier's pyschologist, told the patient, "I will tell you something confidentially that I would have to deny if it were ever public." McNinch added that "Not only myself, but all the clinicians up here are being pressured to not diagnose PTSD and diagnose anxiety disorder. … Unfortunately, yours has not been the only case. … I and other [doctors] are under a lot of pressure to not diagnose PTSD. It's not fair. I think it's a horrible way to treat soldiers."

After the U.S. Army became aware of this controversial tape, the Senate Armed Services Committee declined to investigate its implications. The U.S. Army has conducted an internal investigation and has since "cleared itself of any wrongdoing."

Private Jason Scheuerman could not wait until he returned home from Iraq to seek treatment for PTSD. He informed his fellow soldiers and commanding officers that he was suicidal. He was experiencing some of the most extreme symptoms of PTSD, including hallucinations. When he finally received a mental health evaluation, the psychiatrist concluded that he did not meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. The psychiatrist also informed his leaders that he was "claiming mental illness in order to manipulate his command."

Not only was Scheuerman denied treatment and forced to remain on combat duty, but he also was punished by his superiors for seeking mental help and threatened with jail time. Shortly thereafter, there was a letter posted on Scheuerman’s barracks closet. Inside the closet, his lifeless body was discovered. "Maybe finally I can get rid of these demons, maybe finally I can get some peace," he wrote.

The letter continued by attributing his decision to the officers' threat to send him to jail. "I know you think I'm a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now, I have no other choice," Scheuerman wrote.

Veterans have committed suicide outside of military hospitals after being denied treatment or were simply tired of the bureaucracy of the system that forces us to run around looking for help. If military and civilian leadership do not recognize these numbers as a sign that we are worn out, they are simply not looking.

The military does little more than check the box by holding "safety stand-downs" and suicide prevention classes. The root of the cause is never examined, because it is not convenient to the mission to look in that direction. The military brass has stooped so low as to blame suicides on "Dear John" letters, poor upbringing by parents and "underdeveloped life coping skills." False excuses like these allow the Pentagon to absolve itself of all responsibility and allows the military to circumvent paying disability benefits. It also permits the warmongers to distort the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve their own interests. The Pentagon only cares about advancing its military goals. It cares nothing about the soldiers it uses to spread imperialism.

Commander-in-Chief is no different; looks away

According to the White House, a policy exists that dates back to the Clinton era in which the president sends letters of condolences to families of U.S. troops who have died in combat but not if they have committed suicide. This policy was brought to the forefront when on June 19, 2009, Spc. Chancellor Keesling—only 25 years old—took his own life while deployed in Iraq.

At his funeral, Keesling was given all honors associated with a soldier who had died in combat. In Indianapolis a flag was flown over the state capitol. Even with all these remembrances, the families mailbox is still empty, waiting on a letter from the president.

Keesling’s father spoke to CNN and expressed how upset he and his family were to not have received a letter of condolence from President Obama. To the Keesling family, their son didn’t "commit suicide" or "take his own life," but had rather "died from suicide."

What does this policy say to the families of Keesling and the thousands of others like him who have had their lives stolen from them by Washington and its wars for empire? The unfortunate fact is that the president cares about these issues just as much as any other politician, who only give lip-service to soldiers when election season comes around. If the president really cared, he would not send one more soldier or one more marine to Iraq or Afghanistan for imperialist plunder. If the president really cared, he would initiate a program that would give all members of the U.S. military, past and present, tools they need to start the recovery process. Instead, he sits by as 200,000 veterans are forced to live on the streets every night with no chance for health care.

Escalation in Afghanistan will only bring more death

Sadly, as we begin to see the escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan, we will likely see a rise in the suicide rates of our sisters and brothers still in uniform. Along with that, the numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan will undoubtedly see a sharp rise as well.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a death sentence for us and our sisters and brothers. Why should we fight in this war? Why should we risk being killed, losing our limbs, being permanently disfigured or enduring a lifetime of PTSD? Why should we leave our families and our children behind only to watch our friends die? Why should we destroy the lives of innocent people who have done nothing to harm us?

March Forward! calls on all soldiers, sailors, airmen/women and marines to refuse orders to these criminal wars. We must stand up and tell our government that these are not our wars. We must make it clear that these are not wars which are being fought in our "national interest" but in the interest of the wealthy. And we must never forget that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are not our enemies. We have more in common with them than any politician in Washington or the U.S. officer class! This is not our war!


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