Missing in Action: Leadership to Address PTSD and Suicide in the Military

It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it.
– Robert E. Lee (Confederate general)

I’ve had enough. I’m pissed off at my government.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the epidemic of PTSD and suicides in the military.

Why?

Because it’s a very serious problem that requires leadership to address effectively.

Canada’s military is puny on a world scale, considering that for its population of 34 million people there are only about 70,000 regular members of the military (the Reserves have some 30,000). Yet Canada’s army was placed in a hugely stressful position post 911 by former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who not wanting to deploy soldiers to Iraq tried to placate President G.W. Bush by sending grossly underequipped troops to Afghanistan, where they first took up position in Kabul.

In her excellent book The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar University of Toronto professor Janice Gross Stein documents the politics behind Canada’s entry into the war in Afghanistan. For example, it was Newfoundlander and charismatic (now former) Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hiller who convinced Prime Minister Paul Martin to redeploy Canadian troops to Kandahar Province. My personal view of Hiller has always been that he was more into promoting himself than being truly concerned with the wellbeing and safety of Canadian solders. My opinion is now being born out as Canada has come under recent criticism from NATA partners that have complained about my country’s inadequate performance in Afghanistan. Read this piece from one of Canada’s preeminent journalists, Brian Stewart.

Those of you who have followed the war in Afghanistan over the past several years know how dangerous Kandahar Province has been for soldiers. The stress has been enormous for these men and women. Canadian soldiers were never properly equipped for this mission. Nor were they in sufficient numbers. For example, Canadian soldiers for many years had to rely on land transport because of the lack of airlift capability. The number of deaths and injuries from IEDs was staggering. So the Canadian government arranged to borrow helicopters from Poland–an abject indictment on my government.

Some 30,000 Canadian soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan over a decade, making it the largest deployment since World War Two. Canada has suffered the highest per capita deaths from the different countries that have sent troops to Afghanistan. About 160 Canadian soldiers have died to date, while 1,859 have been wounded (including both combat and non-combat).

While difficult to estimate, the number of PTSD cases is around 2,750, with another 6,500 members of the Armed Forces expected to require some form of mental health counseling. These numbers are astonishing–indeed disgraceful from a country that considers itself to be civilized and supportive of its military.

It’s one thing for soldiers to deal with the hazards of war; it’s quite another to have to deal with indifferent politicians and bureaucrats.

What really got my attention recently was Time magazine’s July 23 issue whose cover had the stark photo of a military bugler with the words One a Day. One U.S. soldier commits suicide each and every day. The U.S. military is struggling with this epidemic, with no clear strategy. CBS evening news has regularly reported on the problems facing both active and discharged soldiers. It’s heartbreaking to hear these stories, of young men (women do not serve in combat in the U.S., in contrast to Canada) who have trusted their government to stand behind them in thick and thin, only to be abandoned in their time of need.

Why is this?

Watch this short video on suicide in the U.S. military.

Canada’s no better. From the abject disrespect shown towards veterans by the federal department of Veteran Affairs (through publicized instances of leaking personal information) to top military brass who are more concerned about their promotions to political leaders who espouse support then turn their backs on soldiers, my fellow Canadians should be embarrassed for how we treat those who serve their country.

In this video CBC’s acclaimed The Fifth Estate examines suicide, interviewing former soldiers.

You may have wondered about the opening photo in this post. I took it in the small town of Swanton, Vermont, in June 2010 while Sue and I were returning home to Ottawa from a trip to New Brunswick. While approaching Swanton on the interstate, we noticed fire trucks and people holding small American flags each time we went under an overpass. I suddenly realized what was going on.

Upon entering Swanton, we came across long lines of people on both sides of the main street, stretching to the park in the center of town. After we parked our car and talked to some of the people, we learned that a funeral procession would arrive shortly carrying the body of a very young man who had been killed in Iraq shortly after arriving for his first tour of duty. It seemed that the whole town of Swanton had turned out to honor this young soldier.

I was deeply touched by this display of emotion and community support and will never forget it, especially considering I have four adult children who have no idea of what it means to serve one’s country.

While speaking to some of the townspeople that day, we were handed a U.S. flag by a teenager. I keep the flag to this day on the dresser in our bedroom to remind me of the sacrifices and unnecessary deaths of young people in the military. It may be an American flag, but to me it represents the young men and women who serve their countries in the belief that they’re doing the right thing and that their government has their back.

Those who decide to end their lives through suicide have also served their countries, but have fallen in the cracks of the “system” which wasn’t there to help them when they needed it.

Here are some statistics on suicide in the Canadian military, which likes to boast that the percentage of suicide deaths in the Armed Forces is less than the general population. Suicides rose to 20 in 2011 (19 men, one woman) from 12 in 2010. Since 1996, however, 187 soldiers have killed themselves, more than the 158 killed during 10 years in Afghanistan.

It’s time that our national political leaders take serious action to properly confront the problem of PTSD and suicide in our militaries. Yes, those soldiers injured and disabled need the full support of their governments and fellow citizens. But it’s time to eliminate the stigma that’s attached to those suffering mental illnesses and to recognize that those who have ended their lives prematurely have also served their countries nobly.

Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die.
– Herbert Hoover (31st President of the United States)