Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 6, 2013

House of Burgess: No soldier or veteran left behind?

Suicides outpaced combat deaths in 2012

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— On Jan. 24, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the Pentagon was lifting its ban on women in combat roles. While momentous, this about-face in policy will not take place immediately. Branches of the military must now make plans to integrate women into the front lines. Others now have three years to figure out how to weasel out of it.

“Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, may take longer,” reported the Associated Press. “The services will have until January 2016 to make a case that some positions should remain closed to women.”

The declaration was a stunning reversal of a nearly two-decade-old ruling barring the practice. This change comes just over a year after the congressional repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which barred openly gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers from serving. I applaud the Pentagon’s embrace of fairness and egalitarianism. I say this not just because I am for equality in the workplace, but because it’s a workplace I hope to never, ever enter. I have nothing but respect for those who voluntarily sign up for the military, but I certainly don’t want the job. A lover of history in my youth, I clearly recall my terror upon learning of the history of the mandatory draft in this country. My 18th birthday was sullied by the reality of registering with the Selective Service System. I rejoiced when my 26th birthday rolled around and I realized I no longer had to notify the agency of any changes in my whereabouts.

Even with these progressive developments, another rising trend in the armed forces disturbs me greatly. According to data by the Department of Defense released in early January, more soldiers committed suicide in 2012 than died in combat.

“Through November, 177 active-duty soldiers had committed suicide compared to 165 during all of 2011 and 156 in 2010. In all of 2012, 176 soldiers were killed in action,” reported Bill Briggs of NBC News. “Army suicides have increased by at least 54 percent since 2007 when there were 115.”

But more recent reports tell an even sadder story. The above data relates only to active-duty service members. It speaks nothing to what happens to those soldiers once they actually come home. According to a study released Friday by the Department of Veterans Affairs, around 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

“Nearly two-thirds of veterans who kill themselves are over 50 years old, indicating that time served in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade doesn’t fully explain the increase in number of veteran suicides since 1999,” reported Slate’s Abby Ohlheiser. “Despite the average age of veteran suicides skewing older, [VA epidemiologist Robert] Bossarte also noted previous studies that found risk for suicide is highest for veterans in the five years after leaving the service.”

This is off-putting for many reasons. It’s even more unsettling once you realize the dearth of historical data on the subject. When Briggs asked Army officials if last year was a record for active-duty suicides, representatives said they couldn’t say “because the Army has not always tracked suicides.” This indicates a stunning lack of foresight. How could operating in such a high-stress environment not put one’s mental health at risk? Some days I can barely handle my comparatively cushy life as is — and that’s without IEDs or bullets whizzing by my head.

Women and homosexuals deserve the right to fight and die for their country just as much as their straight male counterparts. Opportunity should be granted based on merit, not preconceptions. And I am thrilled that anyone wants to take up such a call to service so I don’t have to. But before we put anyone else in harm’s way, perhaps we should think about doing a better job of taking care of those who have already put their lives on the line. For those who know the horrors of war firsthand, the true battle for survival begins when the actual fighting has ceased.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.