On November 11, 2010 – Veterans Day – Army Specialist Jeff Hanks made headlines when he turned himself into military officials after going AWOL in October. Hanks, a 101st Airborne Soldier, refused to return to Afghanistan after being denied treatment for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he has suffered since his 2008 tour in Iraq. The penalty for going AWOL could include jail time or a less-than-honorable discharge, which would strip him of all veterans’ rights and health benefits.
Hanks’ decision to speak out about his struggle to secure mental healthcare drew attention to the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)’s latest campaign: Operation Recovery, which aims to stop the redeployment of traumatized soldiers suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and sexual trauma.
One in every 10 soldiers who has completed a single deployment has a mental ailment; the rate rises to 1 in 5 after a second deployment and nearly 1 in 3 after a third, Time magazine reports. If the U.S. military followed its own standards and regulations, says IVAW’s Aaron Hughes, a minimum of 20 percent of soldiers that have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan could not be redeployed. That would make it practically impossible for the United States to continue its war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ultimate goal of IVAW.
“This issue is systemic, it’s epidemic,” says Hughes, who served in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 and 2004. “Hanks is just one of thousands of soldiers dealing with the same problem.” According to the Journal of Traumatic Stress, studies estimate anywhere from about 10 to 50 percent, or 15,000 to 75,000 troops, of all service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.
PTSD is directly connected to another major military problem: suicide.The Army reported a record number of suicides – 162 – among its ranks in 2009. The suicide rate among active-duty troops is twice as high as that of civilians, and veterans with PTSD are six times more likely to attempt suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD.
Currently soldiers undergo routine medical screenings when they are deployed. But this brief screening, Hughes says, “is more of a checkbox when going through mobilization than anything else.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that the military has no comprehensive oversight framework to assure that its members are medically and mentally fit for service, or to assess troops’ mental health conditions when they return. This framework, the GAO says, is critical to any medical screening program.
In the current system, a commanding officer has discretion over what happens after a soldier is screened. This means that someone deemed ineligible for deployment by a military mental health professional can still be forced to deploy with severe trauma, according to Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S.C. Chu.
Operation Recovery is currently focused on teaching the public how ingrained mental health mistreatment is in American military culture. IVAW encourages citizens to pledge support on its website z(at www.ivaw.org) and contact their representatives. “We want as many people talking about the military’s treatment of mental healthcare as possible,” Hughes said. “That way, we can stop sending traumatized soldiers back into combat.”