Op Ed

Responsibility, Duty, and Mental Health in the Military

On the U.S. Army’s recruitment site,, there are all sorts of reasons why the army might be right for you. There’s a page for parents, too, which lets them know how the military will affect their children, with a section on personal growth:

Inspiring, and accurate. The army does a great job in instilling discipline, respect, and responsibility in its members.

“Above all, Soldiers get things done. Protecting freedom. Building a better world. And building a brighter future for themselves by learning leadership skills and developing the kind of self-confidence and self-respect that comes from serving your country.”

This is such a great philosophy, and I’ve seen it happen – kids with less-than-perfect discipline who are facing an uncertain future join the army, and through training and service, come out the other side completely changed. The potential for personal growth in the army is, without a doubt, a real draw. The army teaches young men and women self-confidence, self-respect, and perhaps more importantly:

“He or she will be challenged to accept a new sense of discipline and responsibility.”

I have seen this happen when people go away to join the army, and it is something that is extremely valuable. People should be proud of their service, and they should be proud of the personal growth that their service develops in them.

Which is why articles such as this one, highlighting the inefficiencies of Veterans Affairs when it comes to mental health, make me so upset. The article discusses the fact that 95,000 patients (about half of those seeking treatment) had to wait an average of 50 days to get a mental health appointment; this one says that hundreds of veterans had to wait an average of four years to get their full mental health benefits. From a 2008 court case of veterans against the VA:

“Shhh!” began a Feb. 13, 2008, email from Dr. Ira Katz, a VA deputy chief. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

The VA lost that court case. But their loss has recently been overturned, because of jurisdiction.

And here is where my disappointment sets in. I mean, of course it is upsetting that veterans are being treated so poorly when it comes to mental health. Because, to start out with, sending young men and women into combat does a number on their mental health. Almost 2 in 5 veterans report Post-Traumatic Stress. According to the Pew Research Center:

“These psychological and emotional problems are most prevalent among post-9/11 veterans who were in combat. About half of this group (49%) say they have suffered from PTS. And about half (52%) also say they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while in the military. Of those who had these types of experiences, three-in-four say they are still reliving them in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. “

The PTSD results in all sorts of havoc:

  • Soldiers diagnosed with PTSD often suffer clinical depression, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, emotional numbing, recurring nightmares, and intrusive thoughts. In many cases, the symptoms worsen with time, leaving the victims at higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, homelessness and suicide.
  • Overwhelming feelings of guilt and sorrow surrounding personal actions or inactions, and feelings of shame and disgust, often prevent or compromise soldiers ability to function.

To back this up, the media is rife with reports of increased violent crime amongst populations of returned veterans. To compound the situation, veterans with PTSD are being sent back to war. And those in the reserve often have an even tougher battle with mental illness, because they have the same types of problems but even more issues with getting treatment.

Even without this recent court case, even if the soldiers were to be provided with better mental health options, the culture discourages treatment:

Another family member said that “seeking counseling is often seen as a weakness to a soldier in a leadership position, and is often accompanied by a negative stigma.” Others charged that commanders are still unresponsive to the needs of service members who want to seek treatment.

And all of this together is abhorrent. It’s more than the fact that it is terrible that these men and women who have sacrificed so much are returning home with deep-rooted problems. It’s more than just the stigma of mental health problems and the additional stigma given by the military. The fact that these soldiers are being denied the help they need, when they need it, is an affront to what the military itself stands for.The military believes in cultivating personal responsibility in its members, and it does a good job of it. But if I tell my daughter not to smoke cigarettes while smoking a cigarette, I know that she’s not likely to listen. I also know that it’s not a fair demand of me to make.These soldiers are returning from war broken by war. The military has put them into situations that stretches their mental health to and beyond its limits – and then begrudgingly, and ineffectively (if at all), picks up the pieces. The military hopes to instill a sense of duty and responsibility in its members, and yet is not willing to hold itself to the same standards.

The military should challenge itself to accept a new sense of discipline and responsibility, to get things done, to build a better world. As it stands, the military, and the VA, is doing just the opposite: shirking the responsibility to help to heal the wounds that they have caused, and running away from the tough problems that they themselves have been instrumental in creating. Until the military is willing to stand up and take responsibility for the mental health of returning veterans, until the military is willing to get things done and fulfill their own duty to the servicemen and servicewomen, they cannot in good faith demand the same from their soldiers.

The slogan for the army used to be “Be All That You Can Be.” Come on, U.S. Military. Be all that you can be. Take responsibility for the damage that you are causing, and give returning veterans the services that they need, when they need them.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

3 replies on “Responsibility, Duty, and Mental Health in the Military”

I’m an Air Force veteran. I don’t know if things have changed since my enlistment ended (probably not), but the general attitude was “the military provides you with food, shelter, healthcare, and chaplains; deal with your own issues and don’t bring them to work”. The mental health stigma is still in place, no question — chaplains (mostly) do the best they can to help their people, but the mental health resources on any given base are minimal.

And I wish I could vote twice for articles. This one made me angrysad.

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