Before 21 year-old Army infantryman Derrick Kirkland hanged himself in his barracks in March 2010, he had attempted to take his life three times. After trying to commit suicide twice while serving in Iraq, he was sent to the Madigan Army Medical Center (MAMC) at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), located outside Olympia, Wash. Doctors pronounced him to be at “low to moderate” risk for self-injury and returned him to his unit, where his commanders reportedly called him a “coward” and a “piece of shit.”
As U.S. wars overseas drag on, stories like Kirkland’s have become increasingly common. Pentagon data released in June revealed that so far in 2012, nearly one active duty soldier has committed suicide each day, more than the number who have died in combat in Afghanistan. The rate is worse among veterans, with about 6,500 suicides logged each year.
As veterans and service members organize to demand mental healthcare, many also seek to challenge the wars that have necessitated returning traumatized troops to battle. “The suicide epidemic proves that the military and the U.S. government are completely incapable of caring for us when we get home from the war,” says Mike Prysner, an Iraq war vet and co-founder of the anti-war organization March Forward. “So we should just not go to begin with.”
In June, March Forward launched a campaign to provide resources and legal support to soldiers resisting deployment to Afghanistan, including both those applying for conscientious objector status and those who have gone AWOL. One such soldier is Sgt. Brook Thomas Lindsey, who was also stationed at JBLM and who fled the base in March 2012. He asserts that he was being returned to duty despite having repeatedly requested help for suicidal impulses. Lindsey turned himself into military police voluntarily in June, and now reportedly faces dishonorable discharge and up to a year in prison. (JBLM did not respond to a request for comment on Lindsey’s case.)
Activist veterans say that in addition to ignoring trauma in order to keep soldiers deployable, the military compromises medical care for soldiers in an effort to downplay the enormous costs of the wars. In March, investigators discovered that hospital officials at JBLM had recommended that psychiatrists limit PTSD diagnoses, which entitle soldiers to certain care and benefits upon retirement, in order to control costs to taxpayers. In response, the Army has launched a review of behavioral health evaluations since 2001 at all of its medical facilities.
Once soldiers are discharged from the military, they enter an equally dysfunctional system. Under federal law, veterans are entitled to five years of medical care, but the Department of Veterans Affairs faces a backlog of 897,000 disability claims.
Maggie Martin, a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), says that soldiers who have been sexually assaulted (as many as 1 in 3 women in the military) face enormous institutional and cultural obstacles in accessing care. Even after she began working with IVAW, Martin says that she didn’t acknowledge for several years that she was herself a survivor of a sexual assault that occurred during her last deployment to Iraq because she “was so ingrained in the system and the stigma.”
As part of IVAW’s nationwide “Operation Recovery” campaign, Martin is now organizing at Fort Hood, where suicide rates are among the highest in the country. She’s collecting testimony from soldiers with traumatic injuries in order to pressure commanders at the base to stop overriding the medical treatment recommendations that soldiers receive from their doctors.
The climbing rate of military suicides has been explained in multiple ways, but one controversial school of thought holds that many soldiers suffer from “moral injury,” caused by guilt and shame at witnessing or participating in something that violated their moral or religious principles.
Martin believes that acknowledging the complexity of a veteran’s position is central to building a viable anti-war movement.
“It’s important to remind people that we’re not heroes completely, and we’re not victims completely,” says Martin, who was among the 50 members of IVAW to return medals awarded to her as part of a protest during the NATO summit in Chicago in May. “We’re humans who were subjected to conditions where we became perpetrators, and now we want to acknowledge the full spectrum of what that means in terms of our own trauma and the trauma we inflicted on others.”
Watch a Chicago Tribune video about Anthony Wagner, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his stint in Iraq and died of a suspected heroin overdose in November: