This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17 August 2011.
Thirty-two American soldiers committed suicide this July, the highest number since the Army started releasing monthly figures. That is one soldier per day, and one more than died in the recent helicopter attack that killed 31 American troops, including more than 20 Navy Seals. The annual number of suicides in the Marine Corps, which doesn't release monthly figures, is on pace with the Army. These figures do not include the suicide rate among veterans, which averages 18 per day.
Institutionally, the military recognises this is a problem; culturally, it does not.
My battalion deployed to Iraq in April 2003. We came home after an extended 15 months of combat in July 2004. We returned home for a year and redeployed in November 2005. During these two tours, my unit lost 13 soldiers in combat and handed out twice as many Purple Hearts, including my own. I left for the Army Reserves in 2007. There I was told that my "deployment clock" was at zero and, though I had just returned, could deploy again. Fortunately, it didn't come to that, though I know it did for others. My story is not unique. Ask another vet and you'll hear the same.
I have friends still serving. Some have done as many as four tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Everyone who went knows someone who didn't come back. Relationships have also been casualties. Of the first five years of my marriage, I spent more than half that time away. The wars have caused many divorces, and many military children are growing up with one or both parents missing because of death or deployment. The memory of what happened "over there", and the difficulty dealing with that memory, lead many to divorce, to drink or, worse, to commit suicide.
Each time we came home, we were told that if we needed counselling, we would be given time. But as we got back to the daily grind of military life, this proved untrue. The problem was never a lack of services. There were always counsellors available and everyone received mandatory "reintegration" training. But I know leaders who expressed suspicions about soldiers who sought help.
The problem is that military leaders at the lowest levels still see the expression of grief over the difficult experiences of military life and combat as a weakness. In the military, those seen as weak do not thrive. Weakness, real or perceived, stands in the way of advancement, awards and promotions. For our military to really fix this problem, this view must be changed. "Mental maintenance" needs to become part of military culture, so that our men and women in uniform can cope with an environment of continuous, long deployments in combat – and with the invisible mental scars.
It also has to be acknowledged by our leaders that we are asking our men and women in uniform to face situations in which they will be confronted with things no normal person could experience without effect. Only an abnormal normal human being could experience the things I've seen and not be affected. This is the price we ask those who serve to pay. For the last decade, America has been asking its troops to face these situations without the promise of proper support. Mental wounds are not visible, but they should not be trivialised.
When leaders send troops into combat, they are asking them not only to risk their lives, but everything that is dear to them in life: their family relationships, their future and even their mental stability. We owe it to our troops to address this problem at every level in the military, and our leaders owe it to them to make sure they are not asking our troops to take such high risks unnecessarily.