Soldier Suicides

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    "We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to the top. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.

                                 Oliver Wendell Holmes in reference to the Civil War


    It has been a continuing and long standing tragedy that the US Armed Services have never provided adequate psychiatric care for its members involved in combat. At first they simply did not recognize the psychological damage that many soldiers had sustained. The fact that some of these illnesses do not immediately become apparent, served as a ready excuse for denial of any responsibility. This has been the single greatest national shame associated with the Vietnam War.

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    Once these injuries were recognized, the military has consistently underestimated or denied their severity, often discharging soldiers that have suffered severe psychological damage without appropriate benefits or support, thereby abdicating their duty and leaving those affected to their own devices.


    In the context of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, our present administration, while bragging about its dedication to our military, have sent our troops into battle without adequate equipment (such as body armor - many soldiers were forced to buy this equipment for themselves on the open market), while systematically reducing benefits to many returning veterans.


    We have all seen violence and blood depicted on the silver screen and now in our homes on HDTV. Knowing it is drama, good or bad, without further consequence, we have become desensitized to these images. For those of us who have had the dubious privilege, as I have, of seeing violence and hemorrhaging blood in person have found these images indelibly etched upon our minds eye and written upon our hearts. One is never again the same.


    Matthew Brady and his assistants took tens of thousands of photos of the civil war. They were respectfully accused of bringing the civil war from the fields of battle and depositing it with the morning papers on the doorsteps of the country. In reviewing some of these photographs carefully one day, I thought it curious that most corpses abandoned in the field are shown lying on the backs with coats and shirts ripped aside. I always assumed this "pose" was due to fact that the surviving soldiers were frantically searching for any additional bullets or hand weapons they might use in ongoing battles. But unsure of this, I decided to investigate.


    What I discovered was that when a soldier was felled by a bullet in the civil war, the very first thing they did was to tear off their own clothes to see if they "gut shot." This was because they knew that if they were gut shot, an amputation would not save them. They knew that they would die unattended and alone where they lay; many died in this process and pose.


    One major difference between the civil war and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that today many soldiers survive "gut shots" and other devastating injuries due to immediate and superior medical treatment on the field of battle. The military is rightly proud of this. The awful tragedy is that many of these same soldiers are sent home with latent mental health problems, such as post traumatic stress disorder, and inadequate benefits and support. They find themselves ostracized by the military and at home by the stigma associated with mental illness. Homeless and suffering with the overwhelming agonies of their mental illnesses and brain injuries, many soldiers have chosen suicide as preferable to living on the streets alongside the mentally ill non-combatants whom our society as a whole has also abandoned.


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    Some 150 years after the civil war, we have done Matthew Brady one up. He delivered thousands of photographs of our wounded, dying or dead soldiers to doorstops of America. Today, we are delivering the soldiers themselves, where they take their own lives or die a slow an anguished death at our feet, while we and our government talk about patriotism, border security, the economy and international trade agreements.

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    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.


Published On: February 03, 2008