Government ignores veteran and soldier suicides

© copyright 2008 Michael Prysner.  Party for Socialism and Liberation

Originally Published Friday, December 28, 2007

While prosecuting its war on the Iraqi people I had been in Iraq for about two months when my brigade suffered its first fatality. He died from a gunshot wound to the head. Nobody wanted to believe that it had happened. The deployment was supposed to be quick and easy; we were supposed to be greeted with flowers and return home within a few months. ??As the sounds from the memorial service echoed in our barracks, there was silence-only the recorded sounds of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” Nobody wanted to talk about the realization that we may never return home. Nobody wanted to talk about the situation we had gotten into; the number of Iraqi people who were dying because of the invasion. Most of all, nobody wanted to talk about the soldier who had died.

The bullet that killed him came from his own rifle, but nobody wanted to talk about that either. Everyone wanted to believe the official story, that it was an accidental discharge. To consider anything else meant accepting that surviving the war was more than just surviving combat. Making it home alive does not necessarily mean making it home safe.

According to the Pentagon, at least 152 soldiers have committed suicide while serving overseas in the phony “war on terror.” It can be safely assumed that this number is much higher, as the military brass would rather explain a suicide as a “tragic accident” rather than a result of combat stress. ??In fact, the Army maintains to this day that it has not yet found a link between combat stress and suicide. The Army’s Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, has asserted: “We have not made a connection between the stress on the force and some massive or even significant increase in suicides.” ??This position ignores the truth about serving an imperialist army in an imperialist war. ??It was exposed by a recent CBS News study on suicide levels among veterans. The study showed that veterans commit suicide at twice the rate of civilians. The suicide rate among people in the United States as a whole is 8.9 per 100,000 people. The level among veterans is at least 18.7 per 100,000 people.

Veterans of the imperialist “war on terror” experience a higher rate of suicide with at least 22.9 suicides per 100,000 people.

The Veterans Administration does not keep a record of veteran suicides. It actively avoids these terrible statistics. Countless cases have come to light about soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder being denied treatment, being diagnosed as having a “pre-existing” condition and being accused of lying to escape military service. ??The military brass has stooped so low as to blame suicides on “Dear John” letters, poor upbringing by parents, and “underdeveloped life coping skills.” ??False excuses like these allow the Pentagon to absolve itself of all responsibility. The military is able to circumvent paying disability benefits. It also permits the warmongers to distort the situation in Iraq to serve their own interests. The Pentagon only cares about advancing its military goals. It cares nothing about the soldiers it uses to spread imperialism.

It cares nothing about the Iraqi people, over a million of whom have been killed in this criminal war and occupation.

A criminal war

I have experienced first hand the bureaucracy of the VA system. I have walked into the mental health office and been pointed in a hundred different directions, told to come back another time, and told to drive over an hour to another VA office. After several months of frustration, I ended up with a bag full of pills. This was the treatment I was offered.

Private Jonathan Schulze also received the run around from the VA. An Iraq war veteran suffering PTSD, he tried to check himself in to a VA psychiatric unit in Minnesota. With the aid of his parents, he explained to his counselor that he was suicidal and insisted on being admitted. Instead, he was placed on a long waiting list. The following day, his parents called the VA and pleaded for their son’s admission. They received no cooperation. Four days later, haunted by memories of war, Jonathan Schulze went into his basement, tied an extension cord around his neck, and hanged himself.

Private Jason Scheuerman could not wait until he returned home from Iraq to seek treatment for PTSD. He informed his fellow soldiers and commanding officers that he was suicidal. He was experiencing some of the most extreme symptoms of PTSD, including hallucinations. When he finally received a mental health evaluation, the psychiatrist concluded that he did not meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. The psychiatrist also informed his leaders that he was “claiming mental illness in order to manipulate his command.” ??Not only was Scheuerman denied treatment and forced to remain on combat duty, but he also was punished by his superiors for seeking mental help and threatened with jail time. Shortly thereafter, there was a letter posted on Scheuerman’s barracks closet. Inside the closet, his lifeless body was discovered. “Maybe finally I can get rid of these demons, maybe finally I can get some peace,” he wrote.

The U.S. government will not adequately care for the soldiers it sends to do its biding. It will use them as cannon fodder, then leave them to die alone in a basement or in a dark closet. ??With the recent data displaying a suicide epidemic, the VA has vowed to improve its psychiatric treatment. This is nothing but empty promises. Soldiers will continue to kill and be killed in an unjust war on the Iraqi people. If they return, many will be plagued by trauma. ??But soldiers have the power to break this cycle. If soldiers want to fight a just battle, one that will serve their interests and not the interests of the ruling class, they can join the fight against the system that profits from human suffering. ??Not one more Iraqi should have to die. Not one more Iraqi family should have to leave their homes to flee the imperialist occupation of their country.

Not one more U.S. soldier should fight and die in Iraq. And not one more will have to if they refuse to fight in this criminal war.