President Bush made no reference in his State of the Union message to the tens of thousands of injured veterans or to the more than 5500 Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (including both military and private contractors). But even more profound than these losses are the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women who have suffered permanent scars to their mental health and damage to their home lives. Desertions have risen significantly over each of the past four years, as one measure of the despair felt by US forces and their families. More than 100 soldiers have been accused of murder here in the US after returning from the carnage of the Middle East, and new data shows that military suicides have reached record highs.
The American ideal of a soldier returning from the battlefield to lead a normal family life is being brought into question by an expanding medical literature on the mental scars of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new study from Walter Reed Army Medical Center indicated that 20% of active duty and 42% of reserve soldiers returning from deployments required mental health treatment. Concerns about interpersonal conflict in their lives had increased 400%, and soldiers rarely received referral for alcohol treatment despite reporting significant new alcohol use problems. VA figures indicate that more than 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being treated for mental health problems, half specifically for post-traumatic stress disorder. But surveillance data have suggested that there may be many more who receive no treatment.
Families have suffered siginificant duress as a result of deployments being prolonged last year from 12 to 15 months. In 2005 the Pentagon released preliminary data suggesting that the divorce rate had doubled in the military since the period prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A subsequent study by the Rand Corporation found that in the military generally there had been only a subtle increase in divorce rates, from 2.5% to 3% per year. But Pentagon figures tell a different story for the officer corp, where the divorce rate climbed from 1.9% in 2002 to 3.3% in 2003 and up to 6% in 2004.
An increasing number of soldiers are responding by abandoning the military. In fiscal 2007 the Army reported desertions by 4,698 soldiers, compared to 3,300 in 2006, 2543 for 2005 and 2357 in 2004. Overall this represented an 80% increase in desertion rates compared to the year prior to the US invasion of Iraq. The Associated Press has reported that the military does little in most cases to find or prosecute these individuals.
One of the direst consequences of this mental anguish is the incidence of violence by returning veterans or active military. Last month the New York Times reported having found 121 cases in which veterans of Afghanistan and/or Iraq had killed someone in the US, or were charged with a killing, after returning from war. This report cited combat trauma, the stress of deployment, alcohol abuse, and family problems among these individuals, most of whom had no previous criminal records. Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing, and one third of the victims were spouses, girlfriends or children.
Even more prevalent are the suicides that have risen dramatically among returning veterans. In 2007, 121 soldiers took their own lives, 20% more than in 2006. Consequently the suicide rate climbed for the first time above 20 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2007, more than double the rate in 2001 when military suicides had reached their lowest rate ever. The majority of these deaths occurred while service members were on leave in the US, placing an incalculable burden of grief on their families.
Furthermore, attempted suicides or self-injuries have climbed six-fold since 2003. According to a US Army suicide prevention task force, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide last year, compared with about 350 the year prior to the invasion of Iraq.
Speaking publicly of sacrifice by US military and their families is rife among the political classes. As President Bush asked this week for yet another $70 billion on top of the nearly $200 billion already requested this year to support military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the opportunity costs of suffering at home have silently climbed as well. Some estimates now place the cost of the two wars in excess of $2 trillion projected into the future, when taking account of the costs of care for so many injured veterans. The opportunity costs for all these wasted dollars are measured in the number of children without health insurance, the number in underserved populations in the US who die because of sub-standard cancer care, and in a thousand other ways. But Catholics are called by tradition and the Gospels to reach out in particular to the military men and women who are suffering so much--most importantly by ending the wars that have imposed this heavy burden so selectively upon them.