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At home & abroad: What are we doing to protect our troops?

At home & abroad: What are we doing to protect our troops?

The last year has been a tough one for the United States Armed Forces. While President Obama is managing overall war strategy and drawing down the number of troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, he might want to focus more attention on the well-being of our individual soldiers.  According to data recently released by the Department of Defense, the number of American soldiers committing suicide continues to outnumber combat-related deaths... and it's only getting worse:

Statistics released by the Department of the Army show that through November potentially 303 active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers committed suicide. As of Dec. 7, Stars and Stripes reports that 212 soldiers have died in combat-related deaths in Afghanistan.

The Army set a grim new record of 177 potential active-duty cases with 2012 coming to a close on Tuesday – 64 of these cases remain under investigation, 113 have been confirmed.

I'm a big advocate for mental health, whether in managing crises here at home or keeping Americans safe overseas.  Ensuring the well-being of our troops is the least we can do and private charitable foundations like the Wounded War Project and the Lone Survivor Foundation have been indispensable partners in helping the brave men and women who protect us all.   But these groups' scope of influence is limited and the dramatic increase in soldier suicides recently suggests more institutional reform is needed.

Doing everything we can to protect our troops means not putting them in situations that could compromise their safety and/or sanity.  Since 2000, such diagnoses have increased by 65%.

In my personal opinion, these statistics might not be entirely surprising when you consider a few key factors:

1.) The war against terrorism is unlike any other battle Americans have faced in the past, taking place on an unpredictable battlefield against an even more unpredictable enemy.  Putting our soldiers in a setting where their enemy walks among them -- either as plain-clothed citizens or as disguised terrorists embedded in local security units -- can have a significant effect on soldiers.  They are forced to live on constant alert, never knowing around what corner their enemy is waiting or what potential trap they might be walking into.

2.) Restrictive rules of engagement have helped to prevent some citizen casualties in these wars, but they have also put our troops in an incredibly vulnerable position with limited means to protect themselves.  Being in a war zone poses obvious hazards, but such restrictions can have debilitating effects on troop morale and mission, as well as individuals' sense of purpose.  Anytime we send our troops into harm's way, we need to be sure they have the ability to carry out their mission while minimizing their vulnerabilities on the battlefield.

3.) Returning to civilian life after being in such an unstable environment can often be a scarier experience for troops than combat and the military offers limited assistance for those who overcome the stigma of seeking mental health counseling.

Psychologist Marjorie Morrison has researched this topic and worked extensively counseling Marines.  She details her fight and frustrations with  the military’s mental-health bureaucracy in her book, The Inside Battle: Our Military Mental Health Crisis.  Earlier this year, Morrison told TIME:

We need to stop waiting for service members to seek help on their own. A population of people, who are molded from the very beginning of their careers into being strong and reliant on their commanders for orders, will rarely seek help on their own, and if they do, it’s often too late. The military has such a large emphasis on being physically fit, but I don’t feel they spend nearly the time needed on being emotionally fit.

If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, there is help.  While the topic of suicide can seem like a scary one, openly expressing such feelings and concerns can help save a life.

No matter what problems you may be having, there is help: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a counselor near you.

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