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Mind Games: Will the military own up to the war's psychic toll on its troops?

[Nancy in NYC with a little shameless self-promotion here.]

Raw Story just posted the first part of my 4-part series on mental health disorders among active and returning troops. I think that everyone knows by now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a terrible toll on the men and women fighting them. They are being exposed to the kinds of combat conditions that put them at risk for developing serious mental disorders on an increasing scale, not only because the fighting in both countries is intensifying, but also because they are increasingly being held, or re-deployed, against their will for multiple terms of service.

A recently released report from the Veterans Administration shows that nearly one-third of the nearly half-million vets of these two conflicts are seeking treatment from VA facilities. Of these, a full 35% received a diagnosis of a possible mental disorder — a tenfold increase in 18 months.

This first part, titled “The things they carry” (after Tim O’Brien’s great book) questions whether the military, which is now in the midst of a recruiting crisis and with no end to the war in sight, is looking hard enough for signs of mental illness in prospective and active service members. A terrific Hartford Courant piece from earlier this year suggests that they are not.

Once in the theater, and in violation of the military’s stated policies, “some unstable troops are kept on the front lines while on potent antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, with little or no monitoring or counseling,” and despite the fact that their superiors are aware of their mental condition.

In 2005, these practices contributed to the suicides of 22 soldiers in Iraq, or nearly one in five of all Army non-combat deaths–an all-time high.

In the war zone, commanders rather than medical professionals decide whether to retain troubled soldiers. Ann Scheurman’s son, Pfc. Jason Scheurman, was referred for a psychological evaluation and stripped of his gun after he wrote her a suicide note. Shortly thereafter he was “accused of faking his mental problems and warned that he could be disciplined, according to what he told his family.” The Army gave Jason his gun back.

Three weeks later, he killed himself with it.

In parts II, III, and IV, which will be published on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule this week and next, I go on to argue that the mental health system that these men and women are returning to is deeply inadequate to their needs. The piece includes interviews with 6 different veterans’ advocates, and the author of a May 2006 Government Accounting Office report that concluded that the Department of Defense could not give “reasonable assurance” that all returning troops who might need referrals for further mental health evaluation are getting them.

This series details the multiple barriers to care that exist despite the military’s insistence that it values our troops and is doing all it can to provide high-quality care for them at all stages of their lives.

I know that this makes for tough reading, but I think, regardless of your views on the war, that the neglect of servicemembers and veterans is a scandal — one that all of us should be more knowledgeable and vocal about.

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