Suicide among the troops
It’s bad enough that so many American families have lost a son or daughter in combat in the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan (and, before that, in Iraq), but it’s even worse that so many of the deaths are increasingly the result of suicide and assassination by our supposed allies.
The Pentagon reported Friday that 38 soldiers had taken their own lives in July. That was twice the number of troops killed in combat in Afghanistan so far this month. There’s clearly a serious problem when so many of our soldiers choose to commit suicide, but of course the conflict in Afghanistan is overflowing with problems for our side.
Also on Friday, the Associated Press reported, a newly recruited Afghan killed two Americans minutes after they had handed him a new weapon as a present. It was just the latest in a series of so-called green-on-blue attacks in which Afghan security forces fire their weapons at the international troops training them. Later Friday, another Afghan in uniform turned his gun on foreign troops, but fortunately there were no deaths in the second attack, a military spokesman reported.
The Friday attacks in Afghanistan brought to seven the number of times in the past two weeks that a member of the Afghan security forces — or at least a person wearing their uniform — had fired upon international forces. So far in 2012, there have been 29 such attacks reported, compared to 11 in 2011 and five in each of the previous two years.
A spokesman for the NATO forces sought to put these attacks in perspective by insisting that these killings, horrifying as they may be, are on relatively small scale when compared to the nearly 340,000 Afghan security forces now being trained.
He’s right, of course, yet that’s of no comfort to the families and friends of the victims. Also, the recent surge in such killings inevitably calls into question the chances of our side’s ultimate success in Afghanistan against a ruthless foe like the Taliban.
The suicide issue is just as vexing, and fortunately a recent study by the University of Utah that seeks to explain the unhappy situation has drawn the attention of the top brass at the Pentagon.
The study’s authors explain that “the primary function of suicidal behaviors is to reduce or escape from intense psychological suffering.” That may seem obvious to the layman, but it also reinforces the useful (to those who treat troubled combat veterans) belief that suicide is not, as has been so often believed, a symptom of mental illness.
“From a treatment perspective, we don’t pay attention to the psychiatric diagnosis and treat suicide risk as a unique problem,” the associate director of the university’s National Center for Veterans Studies said in a Washington Post interview published this past weekend. “Patients lack emotional regulation skills — they don’t know how to control suffering or manage it.”
To reduce suicide, the study says, veterans might need meditation rather than medication. As one expert said, breathing exercises and transcendental meditation are not “rocket science.”
If the study leads to better treatment of troubled soldiers, that’s good. But there are reports (most recently on CBS Evening News) of veterans who desperately sought treatment but were unable to get it from the Veterans Administration. That issue has to be addressed, too, and immediately.
It once was called “shell shock.” Now it is “post-traumatic stress disorder.” If medical advances lead to better treatment, that’s great. But where’s the cure for being killed by those you’re trying to help?