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Washington's Mount Rainier Gunman Illustrates Problem of PTSD Among Our Veterans

Benjamin Colton Barnes is believed to have shot and killed Margaret Anderson Sunday morning at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. Found dead inside the park on Monday, Barnes is also connected to a shooting at a house party near Seattle that left four people wounded, two critically. Barnes, 24, was an Iraq War veteran and an ex-soldier who had been stationed at a deeply troubled base, where four other violent incidents have also taken place. 

Barnes had been cited by the mother of his young daughter of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and being suicidal. He once sent a text message to the woman that read, “I want to die.” As a veteran who spent nearly three years in active service, Barnes, as well as the other men with murder convictions who had been stationed at the same base, are extreme examples of how PTSD affects veterans and, by extension, the American public. Such examples illustrate how the U.S. military seems to be largely ignoring the repercussions of war that resound domestically.

U.S. military suicides have been climbing steadily since 2004, according to a Center for a New American Security Suicide report. Though only one percent of Americans have served in the military, former service members constitute 20% of suicides in the United States. Limited data makes it difficult to calculate an accurate figure, but the office of Veterans Affairs estimates that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes. These numbers, which only include successful suicides, not attempts, indicate the alarming prevalence of PTSD and the detrimental effects of war on military personnel.

In response to such numbers, the military services in the past 15 years have taken a leading role in the nation’s suicide prevention efforts, according to a 2010 report by the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. Though this should appear to be a positive step, in truth it is an alarming one.

The report offers distressing insight into the causes of military suicides, some of which are directly attributed to treatment within the military service by other military personnel. Military cultural norms, it says, can stifle responsible help-seeking behavior. Messages from some leaders also do not always focus on positive prevention messages that might help overcome stigmas against seeking help.

Most alarmingly, the task force found that “occasionally leadership environments (usually at the junior supervisory and sometimes at the mid-grade level) resulted in discriminatory and humiliating treatment of service members who responsibly sought professional services for emotional, psychological, moral, ethical, or spiritual matters, which not only deters help seeking but also reinforces the stigma.”

Such findings support the position that the military in its current state is not an entirely positive force in American society. When an institution begins to produce as many problems as it seeks to solve, not only must solutions be found, but the institution in question should also be subject to an intense screening of its purported value. 

Currently, the men and women who die of suicide, those not included in the roll call of casualties from the wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not calculated into the cost of war. Neither are the costs associated with the families who are suffering because of loved ones who commit suicide or return from war forever changed. From 2005 to 2009, 786 service members died while fighting in Afghanistan. During the same period, 1,202 died of suicide, according the report. Though this does not include figures from Iraq, when as many people are dying from the psychological effects of war than war itself, something is seriously wrong.

Yes, a military is necessary within a state, and yes, war is sometimes a viable path to security. But with the U.S. moving from one militarized region to another, with the recent decision to assert dominance in Asia, there seems to be no end in sight. The consequences of military operations as seen in effects such as PTSD, and personified in the actions of Benjamin Colton Barnes, demonstrate the dire need for the U.S. to rethink the role of our military institution and how it interacts with civilian society, even after soldiers have been ordered to stand down.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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