Monday, November 19, 2007

Speaking of People

For some time, various military analysts and anti-war pundits have claimed that the Pentagon has been purposefully under-reporting fatalities among U.S troops serving in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility that includes, inter alia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now the Bush administration has done everything it could to prevent the media from taking pictures, creating videos, or asking embarrassing questions about the relationship between the number of U.S. fatalities and the strategy and tactics being employed. But when the subject focuses on the number and rate of accumulated fatalities, the Pentagon does seem to include all who die from hostile causes as well as from accidents, illness, and other non-hostile causes, including suicide, regardless of where death officially comes – on the battlefield, in a logistics base, en route to the U.S via medical evacuation flights, or at a hospital in the U.S. itself.

Currently, deaths associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom stand at 3,871, of which 130 have been classified as suicides. The number of U.S. troops that have died in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) is 468, but the Pentagon has not provided an easily accessible summary of suicides among U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Working from on-line data and assuming that entries such as “non-combat-related wounds” or “non-combat-related injuries” as well as two or three actual cases where “suicide” is listed, I estimate between 15-20 suicides in Afghanistan among U.S. troops.

What does not show up in Pentagon statistics are the number of suicides among the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who, having completed their service obligation, were able to leave the armed forces or were discharged for medical reasons or for “the good of the service.” This number may never be known, but what is known is the number of veterans who, after discharge from the service, sought help from the Veterans Administration (VA) – for depression, for symptoms associated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for PTSD – but still committed suicide.

Not that this figure was volunteered. CBS News investigative reporter Armen Keteyian spent five months studying data provided under a Freedom of Information Act request to the Pentagon that also turned up a separate accounting record from 45 of the 50 states on the fate of veterans who were known to the VA as potential or actual mental health risks.

The Pentagon data claimed 2,200 suicides between 1995 and the beginning of 2007 among armed forces personnel on “active duty” – which would include National Guard and reservists who were called up for Iraq and Afghanistan. That works out to 200 suicides on average for each of the 11 years.

But when statistics from the 45 VA offices are included, the number of suicides just for one year – 2005 – soars to 6,256. That’s an average of 521 suicides every month of 2005. And within that statistic is another: the suicide rate among veterans age 20-24 who have left service, is twice the non-veteran rate for men and women of the same age.

No matter to whom CBS went for comment in the VA, in Congress, in the administration, almost no one wanted to listen – like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. Yet the existence and the scope of these mental health problems are not going to go away.

The war veterans of today with two, three, even four tours in the combat zone have paid enough. An unknown number, at an unpredictable time, and with unknowable consequences, are going to pay again; how m any will depend on how well the country can marshal mental health resources.

What is clear already is that many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans will repeat the cycle of Vietnam – becoming homeless, hopeless, and eventually dead, both figuratively with regard to family and friends, and literally.

And when the U.S. experience is replicated among the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the coalition troops in those countries, the real human costs finally begin to emerge.

And the U.S. Army wonders why 4,698 soldiers deserted in Fiscal Year 2007, the highest total since before 9/11..


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