Yesterday morning, a Fort Hood soldier (22) shot and killed his commanding officer (a 24 year-old Lieutenant) and himself in front of dozens of witnesses and police officers.   Both soldiers were assigned to 1st Cavalry Division, a division that had just finished a fifteen month tour in Iraq last December and is currently preparing for its next twelve month tour this winter.

The facts surrounding this case are unclear.  Some neighbors said he had been AWOL when his sergeant and lieutenant came to see him but the public affairs office said that he was on transitional leave and the visit was pertaining to stolen equipment.  According to one eyewitness, the police were called when a significant amount of ammunition was seen through the blinds of the soldier’s living room window.   By the time the police got there, however, the soldier had stepped outside of his apartment to talk to his lieutenant.   Once outside, he shot his lieutenant, exchanged fire with the police, and then shot himself.  Autopsies are being performed on both soldiers. 

I am extremely curious as to what kind of discharge this soldier was getting.  I would be very surprised if he was not exhibiting “red flag” behavior prior to this visit; i.e., engaging in acts of misconduct or other self-destructive behavior signaling that he was a soldier in distress.

Ironically, last week the Army recognized National Suicide Prevention Week.  The Army also has a “battle buddy” program/policy  to combat suicide.  Soldiers are teamed up in pairs and they are supposed to keep an eye on each other.  

Despite these efforts, the number of Army suicides in 2008 is expected to surpass the number of suicides in 2007, continuing its post 9/11 annual record-breaking trend (with each new year breaking the record of the one preceding it).  For the first time since the Vietnam War, soldier suicides are expected to exceed the civilian suicide rate.  That being said, one needs to look not just at active duty Army suicide rates in general, but at combat veteran suicide rates in particular.  Only about half of our soldiers have been deployed to a combat zone.  Once a soldier is an OIF/OEF (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom) veteran (i.e., served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan), the chances of committing suicide increase significantly.  VA Secretary Peake testified before Congress in May.  Young male OIF/OEF veterans (18 – 35) are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts and young female OIF/OEF veterans are three times as likely to commit suicide.

Suicides are not the problem, however, they are a symptom of the problem:  the Army does not put nearly as much emphasis on the mental health and well-being of its soldiers as it does on their physical health and well-being.  Yet after waging seven years of ground warfare in Afghanistan and five years of ground warfare in Iraq, one would think that the military would realize that service member psychological stability is ESSENTIAL to unit readiness and troop morale–not to mention public safety.  

The Army says that it appreciates the importance of mental health but as an advocate I have seen unit after unit choose to punish a post-combat soldier for misconduct rather than help that soldier get evaluated and treated for PTSD (as well as traumatic brain injuries).  This is a choice that Commanders make and it is a choice that completely undermines the Department of the Army’s own messaging on the importance of good mental health.  Nonetheless, this is happening at Army bases all over the country.

If we are going to continue to engage in these prolonged military conflicts overseas, then mental health care has to be made a priority.  It has to be generously funded by Congress and aggressively utilized by the Department of Defense.  If we don’t, then this won’t be the last time you will read a headline like this.  

Carissa Picard is an attorney, a blue star wife, and a soldier’s advocate.  She is also the founder and President of Military Spouses for Change.

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