After the US Army announced today that the soldier suicide rate had reached an all time high in 2007, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said, “Today’s news is a tragic reminder of the staggering and ongoing costs of the Iraq war, particularly on our troops and their families. We are more than five years into this war, and the Pentagon and VA are still unprepared to treat the unseen wounds of battle.”
In 2007, 115 soldiers including 22 National Guard and Army Reserve troops killed themselves last year. This represents a 12.7% rise over the 2006 number of 102 suicides. Thirty two of the suicides occurred after President Bush implemented his troop surge strategy. Obama said that too many of the troops aren’t getting the support they need, “We know that incidence of psychological injury increase with each additional tour of duty in Iraq, and that our troops are not getting the support they need. Too many are falling through the cracks because they need help but feel they can’t get it.”
Army officials did say that the statistics do not show a relationship between repeated deployments and suicide, but is clear that there has been a culture at work in the Pentagon that down plays the significance of mental illness. Obama promised better care for the troops, “When I am President, we’ll hire more mental health professionals, increase training to recognize the signs and to reject the stigma of seeking care, and enhance mental health screening and treatment from enlistment, to deployment, to reentry into civilian life. It’s time to serve our troops as well as they have served us.”
As a nation we could be facing a future mental health crisis among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the administration and the military did their best to cover up this problem, we are already behind the curve. We should have had systems in place to treat mental illness before we ever went to war. Obama has it right. We are going to have to prepare for what might be lasting domestic legacy of Bush’s Iraq war, thousands of vets with some form of mental illness.