After 10 years at war, American soldiers are showing severe signs of wear. Not only have 126,000 troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries since the start of the wars, another 70,000 of them have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli, the majority of soldiers disqualified from service due to injury have either TBI or PTSD.
As you might imagine, all that mental turmoil has resulted in erratic behavior in the military's ranks. Hundreds of American veterans and enlisted people still commit suicide every year, and for a couple years more soldiers were killing themselves than were dying on the battlefield. Crime is regular enough amongst the veteran community that special "veterans courts" have begun popping up around the United States.
War demands that people kill men, women, and children, and watch their friends get killed in return—probably the most mentally taxing experience the world has ever known. Of course our soldiers come back in agony, and of course that agony sometimes leads to suicide. But to at least one American general, all this complaining about soldiers killing themselves is "selfish."
"I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act," wrote Major General Dana Pittard, who commands Fort Bliss, one of the nation's largest military bases, in an official blog post. "I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess." Pittard added that any soldier thinking of committing suicide should "be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us."
The National Journal reports that the blog post was deleted from the Fort Bliss website soon after it was posted, but the damage has been done. Pittard has not apologized, nor has the Pentagon condemned his comments as being distasteful and out-of-touch. And now the world knows that one of America's leading military officials believes soldiers who commit suicide are simply not "being adults."
If nothing else, Pittard's comments should serve as a reminder of what our soldiers are up against. First they asked to fight, kill, and witness unknown horror. Then when they're damaged by that horror, they often face backlash that tells them they're weak if they can't handle the pressure. Some of this guilt is self-imposed, of course—men and women acclimated to the "military way" sometimes are unwilling to allow themselves to be seen as vulnerable. But a lot of that burden is caused by comments like Pittard's. The chain of command is a powerful thing, and when the person at the top of that chain is telling you you're a coward if you're thinking of suicide, the lesson gets internalized and can corrode a person from the inside out.
For centuries, we've lived in a world that says soldiers who break under the stresses of war are simply not strong enough, that they're being "babies" if they can't help themselves out of depression. That mentality has led to traumatized veterans who unsuccessfully try to take on their misery by themselves, only to eventually end up homeless, drug-addled, or dead by their own hands. I'm ready for a world in which a soldier's strength isn't measured by how few resources they need to help them get over their pain, but by how quick they are to reach out for those resources. In a world in which men like Pittard are the leaders, sometimes asking for help is the bravest thing anyone can do.