May 30 2009

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VFW Stands Up Against Military Suicides

In an open letter, VFW Commander-in-Chief Glen Gardner is urging his 1.6 million members to help OEF/OIF veterans cope with the stresses of war.

Dear Comrades:

There is an enemy in our midst that is having a devastating effect on our servicemen and women in the field and at home. That enemy is stress.

Since 9/11, more military personnel and veterans have committed suicide than the total dead from both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and this tragedy is occurring despite the best of intentions and programs offered by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. That is because the need has overwhelmed the capacity of government and civilian mental health centers. It's also because some people simply refuse to admit they need help.

After incurring 11 suicides since the beginning of the year, the 101st Airborne Division commander at Fort Campbell, Ky., ordered a three-day standdown of activities this week so that his soldiers could refocus on the mission of healing themselves and each other.

This is a very positive initiative, but more needs to be done to overcome the stigma that's unfortunately attached to seeking help, which Army Secretary Pete Geren called a significant challenge to the culture of the Army that places "a premium on strength: physically, mentally, emotionally."

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen even asked his military leaders to set an example for lower ranking personnel. "You can't expect a private or a specialist to be willing to seek counseling when his or her captain or colonel or general won't do it," he said.

Since then, general officers as well as sergeant majors have admitted publicly to mental health counseling. And even though few of them would be seen manning remote outposts, and still fewer would be at risk of being separated from the military due to "preexisting personality disorders," their personal testimonials do help to lessen the stigma attached to seeking help.

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