Obama Letters Help Acknowledge Vets' Invisible Wounds

President Barack Obama’s decision to overturn a longstanding policy and send condolence letters to families of military personnel who have committed suicide in combat zones sends a powerful message: This country recognizes the realities of war and honors these troops’ valorous commitment to this country. We see the invisible wounds. 

Many of the costs incurred by the U.S military are easily quantifiable. Monthly spending on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, modernized tanks, Medivac missions, and military construction, however jarring, can all be assigned values that fit into budgets and fiscal year reports. But some of the most alarming costs are incurred by the service members who suffer from “invisible wounds” — chronic mental health conditions and cognitive impairments — that stem from the stress of combat. 

The military's culture of strength and discipline has long stigmatized mental illness as a weakness that had no place on the front lines. The president’s inherited policy reaffirmed this, officially differentiating troops killed in combat from their peers who succumbed to their poorly-understood suffering. 

Obama’s reversal of this policy showed sensitivity to the 295 active-duty service members who took their own lives last year. This significantly more rational and sensitive policy is a further step for the president beyond the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell late last year. Both decisions place a premium on inclusion on groups that are easily marginalized. From a presidential candidate who was relentlessly criticized in 2008 for his lack of military credentials to a stalwart Commander-in-Chief, Obama has shown tremendous leadership with a holistic approach to solving seemingly intractable problems. 

Blame repeat deployments, difficulty accessing medical care or accessibility to friends and family at home untrammeled by the realities of war; mental health issues for military personnel are rampant. According to a Pentagon report, psychological problems are responsible for the hospitalization of servicemen more than any other malady and fall only behind pregnancy as the second-leading cause of hospitalization for servicewomen. The rate of incident diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder “increased nearly six-fold between 2003 and 2008” in active duty military. Even more distressing: A 2010 Department of Defense report cites that upwards of 1,100 servicemen took their own lives between 2005 and 2009, an average of one military suicide every 36 hours.  

It doesn’t help that the treatment landscape for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and major depression, (all conditions that affect mood, thought and behavior) is hazy at best. In early 2010, Rep.Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, held a hearing to explore the causal relationship between antidepressants and veteran suicide, a problem that claims the lives of 18 veterans, each day. 

So while the president's efforts are commendable, it is clear that more needs to be done to help those returning from combat and suffering from mental illness. Paul Rieckhoff, the Founder and Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, issued a statement in the wake of Obama’s announcement and advocated for “a national call to action for more mental health professionals and mobilize resources to immediately address this tragic situation. What our community needs are substantial resources and a real push that prevents suicide, not just letters after the fact.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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