Thursday, January 31, 2008

Record Setting Suicides

Here is an interesting Washington Post article about the suicide of soldiers reaching record levels.

The article details a systematic study conducted by Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, and it was found that:

"the current Army Suicide Prevention Program was not originally designed for a combat/deployment environment."

Now, this was not some New York Times hatchet job, this was based on a study ordered by the U. S. Army.

How on earth, after 6 (insert your favorite expletive here) YEARS OF WAR (counting the war in Afghanistan) can the Suicide Prevention Program NOT be designed for a "combat/deployment environment"? This is a statement that simply boggles my mind. This is a statement that should boggle EVERY American's mind.

The story goes on to quote a Staff Sgt. Gladys Santos, who says that "They gave me an 800 number to call if I needed help." To which she rightly replied: "When I come to feeling overwhelmed, I don't care about the 800 number. I want a one-on-one talk with a trained psychiatrist who's either been to war or understands war."

That sounds like a reasonable request to me Sgt Santos.

The story goes on to say:

"The Army was unprepared for the high number of suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among its troops, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued far longer than anticipated. Many Army posts still do not offer enough individual counseling and some soldiers suffering psychological problems complain that they are stigmatized by commanders. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms and Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care, but critics charge that significant progress has not been made."

This is what happens when you trust the likes of Paul Wolfowitz who tell you that the war is going to be easy and of short duration despite a lot of military and intelligence advice to the contrary.

Remember that General Shinseki told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand troops and several years to pacify Iraq, comments that great military thinker Wolfowitz characterized as "wildly off the mark".

This comment by a former Army Psychologist gets to the crux of the matter:

"Increasing suicides raise "real questions about whether you can have an Army this size with multiple deployments," said David Rudd, a former Army psychologist and chairman of the psychology department at Texas Tech University."

In past posts, I have struggled with the idea of why these problems have seemingly been accelerated (homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, crime, etc) with Veterans of this war. I'm beginning to think that it has something to do with the idea that in World War II for example, the experience of the war was difused to literally millions of Americans during the period of war.

In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war has been borne by mostly the same thin slice of the population, sent repeatedly back to the war zone.

The article details efforts by the military and the government to grapple with the issue. I believe and have said repeatedly that there are good people who are working on these issues and who care. I know this because I know the type of people who serve in the military.
But I believe that the problem is going to get to a point where it may be unmanageable, especially since there is no end in sight to our current wars, and continual talk by the Presidential candidates and others about fomenting and instigating new wars.
The question we have to ask ourselves is how much more can we ask these good people to sacrifice. To hear those in Washington tell it, the answer is "until we win" - the War on Terror, the War in Iraq. That is all well and good, except for they are usually very non-specific on what that really means. But, it does sound good to the people back home.
I think - no, I KNOW, there is definitely a breaking point. There is a breaking point for this country financially. There is a breaking point with regard to military readiness (and this article details the military's unreadiness to protect against an attack on the homeland):
(as an interesting side note, the piece makes no mention or reference to the idea that 6 years of grinding war, utilizing the Guard and Reserve could have anything to do with these issues. They used them because "they are about 70 percent cheaper than active duty troops". The article makes you want to think that all of these issues "suddenly" cropped up and happened in a vacuum).
And, to me, most importantly, there is a breaking point of the soul of this country.
How close are we? I wish I knew, but I don't.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr and Vietnam

Every year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the media usually plays portions of the "I have a dream" speech.

As good of a speech as that is, a few years ago on the holiday, I found out about this little gem:

It is called "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam" and it was given in April 1967.

Whatever the viewpoints on the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan one holds, every American should give this speech an honest read and honest consideration. I believe it has much to say about the current mind set and state of this country in 2008. There are some differences to be sure, but this speech can be used as a "template" to see how we might be doing as a nation in our current wars.

A lot of Americans will say that all of these things that Dr. King said don't apply because Vietnam was different and "9/11 changed everything".

9/11 was a horrible tragedy, there is no question of that. But, contrary to government and media spin, it did not "change everything".

Those who really believe that 9/11 changed everything believe those that don't believe it are naive about "the way the REAL world works".

Those who don't believe 9/11 changed everything believe those who do believe it just haven't had the imagination to SEE the world at peace, and our role in it.

Make no mistake, I personally understand there are BAD people in the world who sometimes need to be dealt with. With all of the hatred and killing, it is certainly difficult for a lot of people to see how peace could be possible.

For myself, I always come back to certain questions. Have these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made this country safer? Have they made us a better people? Have they influenced OTHERS in the world to view the American idea as a good way of life? Why has no one articulated what it REALLY means to "win" in Iraq?

One of the very eloquent takeaways for me in the speech was when Dr. King says the following:

"This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently, one of them wrote these words: “Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

I think every American must decide what those words mean to them.

In 2008, is the US still a beacon of freedom and democracy? Or the image of violence and militarism.

Makes you think doesn't it? Or maybe not.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Homeless Vets? Not According to Bill O'Reilly

This is a video of Bill O'Reilly essentially denying that there are homeless vets, and also video of Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
( being interviewed by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.
Paul is also the author of the book Chasing Ghosts, Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier's Perspective. I believe this is the finest book yet written on the war in Iraq (.
Normally, I don't get too riled up by the delusional rantings of Bill O'Reilly (or anyone from Fox News for that matter). I am not entirely convinced that Mr. O'Reilly even believes half of what he says on the air. He is, in fact, an entertainer (as are the others in his chattering class like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbauh and Neil Boortz to name a few).
But this got me pretty interested.
For a lot of people in this country (and I know some of them personally), Bill O'Reilly's show is a major source of "news", so a lot of people's opinions on current events and issues are formed by his show (and that includes other "hot button" issues like immigration, waterboarding, etc).
That is why he must be challenged early and often on this. IAVA has a place on their website where you can go to sign an "open letter to Bill O'Reilly" (I wonder if he has "goons" that he might send if he gets a list of addresses - I remember him threatening someone awhile back? I signed the letter, so that's the chance I'll have to take).
I would say that there is virtually no chance that he will ever admit that he is wrong.
I also think what is going on is that for those on the right side of the political spectrum, they have a somewhat idealized view of the military, and the Soldiers (Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coasties too) in it. Make no mistake. They are great people who have been handed a mission that without the Iraqi's political reconciliation is practically militarily impossible. Make no mistake, they are much better than the "leaders" who sent them there.
As long as the soldiers are over there, getting broken, maimed and killed and not causing too much trouble there is a huge outpouring of "support" for them. Yellow ribbons on cars, wearing the red shirt on Friday, etc.
BUT, when they start coming back and causing some trouble and having some issues, where does the support go? You have to remember that for some on Bill O's political spectrum, homelessness, drug addiction, etc. is a MORAL FAILING. No brave, true soldier could POSSIBLY be homeless. Or be a drug addict. Or resort to crime. That simply doesn't fit the mold. For that to happen to someone, well, they would have to be one of the "phony soldiers" who complain a lot about the war, or worse, a weakling.
They simply cannot conceive that the war (which was promised to be short, pain and cost free - a "cakewalk" if you will), and the trauma resulting from it could possibly be causing any problems whatsoever.
No. It cannot be the war. It cannot be the war which has raged for five years with literally no end in sight. It cannot be the war which a thin slice of the population keeps getting sent back to repeatedly to face a constant barrage of IED's, snipers and other surprises from a never shrinking insurgency.
No, it has to be something else "causing" these horrible stories to come out. It has to be the traitorous, America hating, soldier hating people at the New York Times and other liberal media outlets spreading filthy lies and bad news about our President and our troops.
But it is happening. I have posted a lot of things here on this blog (almost to the exclusion of posting anything else)(and they've been talking about a predicted "Tsunami" of vet homelessness), and a lot of other people are telling the stories.
As I have said, there are veterans who are coming back and adjusting to life after the war. I have said repeatedly that these vets should be systematically studied (to see what is making them "tick") and their treatment plans should be replicated as much as possible.
I do agree with one thing that more of the success stories of recovering vets could be found and told.
I'll be looking for them. But, I will continue to tell the other stories that I find too.
Meanwhile, Bill, you should be looking for the homeless veterans that supposedly don't exist. Being in New York City, you probably don't have to go too far.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

89% - Wonder what that's all about.....Part II

Got some feedback on my blog from yesterday (which was kind of cool), and also got sent some articles disputing the articles I posted yesterday from the New York Times.

Generally the articles were of two types. One type questioned the validity of the statistics, and the methodology of gathering the statistics (which is an entirely valid argument). The other genre were of the type that insisted that it was the traitorous, liberal, soldier hating, America hating New York Times trying to get even with the soldiers because the surge was so successful. The best example of this was a piece by Ralph Peters.

Over the past several months, I have tried to document in a hopefully non-sensational, non-exploitative way these issues (i.e. the crime, the alcoholism, drug abuse, PTSD, etc) in this forum.

I also want to always be thinking about and talking about SOLUTIONS to these problems.

I think there is a pretty compelling argument that SOMETHING is going on. I believe the cases they used, while maybe being "cherry picked" were disturbing enough to comment on.

I highlighted the case of Mr. Sepi (many of the articles chastised the use of this person as someone who they tried to make look like "Rambo").

My interest in him was that I felt his case was almost a clinical example of how NOT to successfully integrate back into society after the war.

Make no mistake (and maybe I wasn't clear enough), nothing was DONE to this young man. HE chose to withdraw himself. HE chose to move to a place where he didn't know anybody. HE chose to live in a situation that was physically dangerous. HE chose to continue to carry a weapon and continue to drink. HE chose to ignore the advice given to him to show up for his alcohol treatment.

It was as if he had a checklist on "how to screw your life up" and he went down and checked off all of them for good measure.

As I said yesterday, there are many vets who are making the good choices for their lives, and we should continue to look to them and replicate their treatment plans and ideas as best as possible.

In the end though, how do you get through to a person such as this? Is there an ability to do so? Or is he just "the cost of doing business" for freedom's sake?

One thing I have been looking at lately is a program called Battlemind ( This seems interesting to me, although I do not know if this is a solution to try to solve these problems.

I don't think the problem is coming up with programs to take care of our troops.

I think the problems are with funding them (and this article chronicles Maryland's efforts on trying to fund their National Guard readjustment programs,13319,160065,00.html), keeping track of who is going through them, systematically making sure everyone is going through them, and following up to make sure everyone is getting the help they need.

Then, I believe the biggest thing would be to systematically make sure that these programs are EFFECTIVE.

In an earlier blog (New Years Resolution), I chronicled Montana's struggles with taking care of their vets.

Their governor (Brian Schweitzer) said "The federal government does a remarkable job of converting a citizen to a warrior, I think they have an equal responsibility converting a warrior back to a citizen."

I think that is still a rallying cry. But it cannot only be the responsibility of the Federal Government.

I really believe that there are good people within the system who have the very best interests of the soldiers and their families, but I believe that these efforts seem pretty fragmented and haphazard.

I would love for someone to tell me that I am wrong about all this, and show me where the systematized thinking and problem solving is. Until I get those answers, I'm going to keep writing about this.

Occasionally I'll get it wrong (or wrong enough), but I think we're in big trouble if we don't solve these problems.

Monday, January 14, 2008

89% - Wonder what that's all about.....

This is a pretty disturbing piece about an increase in violent crimes committed by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second piece is the distillation of the numbers in the New York Times piece.

The piece said that

"At least 121 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have committed a killing or been charged in one in the United States after returning from combat"

It also said (when referring to "349 homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans in the six years since military action began in Afghanistan, and later Iraq."):

"That represents an 89-percent increase over the previous six-year period"

To which, the Pentagon said:

"the apparent increase in homicides involving military personnel and veterans in the wartime period might reflect only "an increase in awareness of military service by reporters since 9/11."

Right. We're supposed to believe that "awareness" explains away an 89 percent increase?

On the other hand, the New York Times piece (and it is a pretty long piece) does bring up questions by one of the victims families about using the war and PTSD as an excuse for violence and mayhem.

One of the family members talks about veterans of previous wars and how it "didn't affect them":

"Thomas Tiffany Varney IV, the victim’s father, expressed skepticism about Mr. Strasburg’s PTSD and the disorder in general, saying, “His grandfather, my dad, a lot of people been there, done that, and it didn’t affect them,” Mr. Varney said. “They’re trying to brush it away, ‘Well, he murdered someone, it’s just post-traumatic stress.’ ”

I think these are legitimate questions that should be debated. Of course, what we'll actually get are polarized viewpoints. Those of a more conservative bent will say that it's just a few bad apples bringing dishonor on the brave Americans who fought for their country, came home and started a normal life. To those rabidly against the war, this is just more "proof" of the violence and insanity of the system, and ultimately the wrongness of the war.

I believe the truth is somewhere in between.

I do ask myself the same questions (and these are questions we should ALL be asking). Why do more veterans seem to have trouble adjusting than their "Greatest Generation" grandfathers and fathers who fought in World War II.

I do know that my own World War II veteran father suffered trauma, nightmares, depression and bouts with alcohol right up to his death at age 83. I also know from anecdotal information from people I've known over the years that his experiences were not at all unusual.

There are all kinds of explanations as there were for the problems after Vietnam. Very few have been systematically proven - no more than hunches really. Different kind of war. Different kind of upbringing. Different kind of training. Different kind of society now. Different kind of family structures. Different recruitment standards (more willing to take those who've already committed crimes), Different attitude of the country, etc.

After all that I've written here, I still have extremely mixed emotions about this, and I'm no clearer than I was when I started. Except to say that I think there is a problem.

I do not believe you can use PTSD as the sole excuse for violence. It certainly can be a causative and an extenuating factor. But I also believe that we really need to get underneath these problems. I believe we are really looking, to use a cliche, at the tip of the iceberg, or the stirrings of a tidal wave. I believe that all of these things, the suicide, the crime, the violence, the drug and alcohol abuse, the homelessness are really the start of a long term problem that has the potential to be worse than the Vietnam era.

I also believe there are those who are working very hard to assimilate back into society, and working very hard to stay away from these traps. They are working their chosen programs, working with their families and friends and the people who help them. THOSE people should be studied, and their methods of recovery should be replicated as much as possible.

Also, we should give support (both financial and moral) to those who are working to help these vets. Revolutionary ideas and therapies should be tried (see post on this blog called Change or Die, October 28 2007)

To close, I think the story of Matthew Sepi is illustrative of those who are outside of the system.

The piece says that "Matthew Sepi withdrew into himself on his return from Iraq."

The piece goes on to say: "Feeling lost after his discharge “with a few little medals,” he ended up moving to Las Vegas, a city that he did not know, with the friend of a friend. Broke, Mr. Sepi settled in the Naked City, which is named for the showgirls who used to sunbathe topless there. After renting a roach-infested hole in the wall with an actual hole in the wall, he found jobs doing roadwork and making plastic juice bottles in a factory. Alone and lonely, he started feeling the effects of his combat experiences."

Being alone certainly doomed Mr. Sepi to failure in his bid to adjust to life outside Iraq.

Now, maybe some hope for him:

"In Las Vegas, Mr. Sepi’s alcohol counselor took him under his wing, recognizing war-related PTSD in his extreme jumpiness, adrenaline rushes, nightmares and need to drink himself into unconsciousness.
The counselor directed him to seek specialized help from a Veterans Affairs hospital. Mr. Sepi said he called the V.A. and was told to report in person. But working 12-hour shifts at a bottling plant, he failed to do so (emphasis mine)."

Mr. Sepi only got some help AFTER he murdered two people.

Over the next several years, we need to figure out how to reach some of these guys (and gals) BEFORE something bad happens.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

I don't usually make personal New Year's Resolutions. I used to make ones like "lose 10 pounds this year" (just like everyone else). I stopped making them years ago when I realized that to make resolutions was somewhat futile, and I never seemed to be able to lose that 10 pounds.

I do think though, as a country we should make some resolutions. And, unlike my 10 pound quest, we need to stick with them in a hard, systematic fashion. The results of not doing so will be disastrous.

First and foremost, one of our resolutions this year should be to make a commitment as a nation to take care of the troops coming home from repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq (and whatever other countries, if any, the powers that be decide to "engage" this year).

We need to take care of their physical needs, their emotional needs, their psychological needs, their family needs, their spiritual needs, and needs I may have not yet thought of.

I read a piece about Montana Guard vets this weekend - and this is a pretty shocking, disturbing story by itself (and unfortunately one that is repeating itself too frequently in every state):

The Governor of that state (Brian Schweitzer) made a great quote regarding returning vets. He said: "The federal government does a remarkable job of converting a citizen to a warrior, I think they have an equal responsibility converting a warrior back to a citizen." Truer words have not been spoken.

Unfortunately, I believe the "system" that is supposed to take care of these vets is overwhelmed (the VA and Military Treatment Facilities). I have to believe that the people staffing those facilities are probably high quality people, and they do the best that they can. But, what they are faced with is something akin to trying to hold back a bursting dam with a truckload of 50 sandbags. It was not set up for the kind of war that we planned for or got. This leaves a lot of folks outside of the system to try to take care of these folks.

A second resolution would be to support these people financially, and with moral support, and to try to bring awareness to the work they are doing both inside and outside of the system (,13319,159196,00.html?wh=news).

Here are a few others to look at:

These are just two of literally hundreds of great organizations. But in that, a caution to be careful and to know who you are donating to.

Another resolution would be to press our leadership to give us straight answers on what we are doing in Iraq. What does victory in Iraq look like? What's the end game? What is the plan to ultimately bring our troops home? Why do we seem to be perpetuating continual unending war instead of looking for peaceful solutions?

These are questions that don't seem to be satisfactorily answered. They are answered with mindless platitudes like "we have to stay the course" and "we are fighting them there so we don't fight them here." Both of these, and other mindless chants do little to give satisfactory answers on how long we are going to have to sacrifice good people, and sacrifice things that could be getting done on the domestic front (i.e. health care, education, infrastructure, etc).

Surely even the most uninformed American recognizes that we cannot sustain these wars at this level indefinitely.

I'll keep trying to write about these things, and try to do it in a respectful, and hopefully thoughtful, unsensational way (and what I mean by that is to try not to exploit any person or situation like a lot in the media do).

And, who knows, maybe I really will lose 10 pounds.