Everyone has heard stories about how repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a terrible psychological toll on U.S. soldiers, often resulting in suicide. Now a study by University of Utah researchers has brought scientific rigor to the anecdotes. The message is clear: Exposing a small, all-volunteer force to repeated combat tours over many years is inhumane, and the soldiers who have been thrust into combat should be identified immediately by the military for specific psychological treatment.
More broadly, the study raises again the moral question of whether the nation can, in good conscience, place its military burdens on the shoulders of relatively few volunteers while the rest of the population remains untouched and unconcerned by the nation's wars. The answer to that question has been obvious for some time. Such a policy encourages military adventurism, and it wrongly lays the weight of war on a small segment of society, many of whom have few other career options. It's not right.
David Rudd, scientific director at the U.'s National Center for Veterans Studies, says it is a "near guarantee" that a soldier repeatedly exposed to combat will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and likely will at least attempt suicide. Of the 244 veterans of fierce fighting that he surveyed, 93 percent qualified for a PTSD diagnosis and 70 percent had attempted suicide. Admittedly, that's a small statistical sample, but the percentages are so overwhelming that they must be significant. Obviously, further study is required.
One of Rudd's colleagues, Craig Bryan, has interviewed 72 military veterans who had tried to commit suicide or had suicidal thoughts. All said that the reason was to escape psychological pain.
The spike in the suicide rate among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused not only tremendous grief for families and loved ones of the victims, but it has alarmed the military. In the past, service in the armed forces made one less likely to commit suicide. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been different.
One factor setting them apart is repeated combat deployments for individual soldiers over 10 years. Another is that these are guerilla wars where soldiers often can't tell the enemy from civilian noncombatants. Rudd is convinced that both factors play into the psychological damage that American combat troops have suffered. He argues for a separate treatment track for combat veterans.
We would add that the United States must re-evaluate the burdens it can place on the all-volunteer force.