Nearly a year ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that eliminating the stigma of mental health from the military culture would be a Pentagon priority. Seeing that some one-third of soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are reporting mental health symptoms, particularly those associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hearing him say, “We have no higher priority in the Department of Defense, apart from the war itself, than taking care of our men and women in uniform who have been wounded — who have both visible and unseen wounds,” was at the very least, an institutional acknowledgment of the problem.
Good intentions and politically correct language aside, like most of what we see and hear in Washington, his words papered over and have yet to affect a cruel reality, one with which only a small percentage of Americans have any real familiarity. Perhaps with the help of investigative reporters Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, who have been producing some amazing work for Salon.com, we can all get up to speed.
Through their recent “Coming Home” series, Benjamin and de Yoanna discover that stigma is only the first cut (but a terribly deep and potentially fatal one, considering the growing suicide and murder rates among recent veterans). Then comes the twist of the knife, when mental health is used against active duty soldiers, for example, when they are punished or even dishonorably discharged for a “personality disorder” instead of correctly diagnosed and treated for PTSD or worse, TBI (traumatic brain injury), resulting in a gross reduction of post-service medical and financial benefits for themselves and their families.
Then there are the soldiers who brave the stigma to seek care and, according to a series of interviews by the Salon.com reporters and related investigations, are deliberately misdiagnosed, again, to avoid the expense to the military down the road. Both intrepid patients and reporters seem to have — with the help of whistle blowers in the medical community and interested congressional lawmakers — uncovered enough testimony to argue there is a systematic problem, and in reality, it is a heartbreaking scandal, despite continued denials from the Army.
Another thing to keep in mind is we’re not only talking about PTSD victims. Nearly two million men and women have so far served in Afghanistan and in Iraq — and about 20 percent of them have incurred a head injury, according to a recent DoD study. Seeing that, depending on the degree of TBI, residual damage can manifest itself in many of the same symptoms as PTSD (depression, anxiety, severe moodswings and rage), we ask how many of these soldiers and veterans are being shuffled off by military psychologists with the wrong diagnoses, perhaps penalized for their behavior, and how many more are suffering silently, the victims of institutional stigma and neglect?
The perfectly sad thing is that now that the Democrats have arrived on the national security scene, they have seemingly abandoned all their high talk about soldiers put at risk by multiple overseas deployments and egregiously short dwell times. Instead, we have the (long predicted) return of liberal interventionists, who are pretty excited about flexing the military muscle to do for Afghanistan what the Bush Administration could not do, and believe they can achieve, as author and critic Nir Rosen said on Democracy Now! this morning, “the perfect confluence of national security … and American moral obligations.” They promoted the addition some 21,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan this year, and will no doubt advocate for more if they are convinced of the need.
“The Tale of the Secret Army Tape,” the latest in Benjamin and de Yoanna’s “Coming Home” series, takes up the challenge of our public obligation to soldiers and veterans when our representatives and key decision-makers fall down on the job. All signs today sadly indicate, that without a much stronger intervention and committment from Sec. Def. Gates himself, their investigative services will be in demand for quite awhile.