Tuesday, March 13, 2012

We Don't Know

So I was just listening to The Diane Rehm Show where she and her guests are discussing the mass murder of Afghan civilians by a 38 year old Army Staff Sargeant, tying it to questions regarding recruiting, training, and the treatment of people who have a variety of psychological problems. The first person to whom Diane spoke mentioned that current military policy requires two years between deployments; the person in question had less than a year between his deployment in Iraq, where he apparently suffered an unspecified Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and his current deployment to Afghanistan.

Swirling around these questions, as a former RAND analyst on the panel looking at military recruiters noted, are questions of the pressures put on recruiters to meet quotas. This led to many recruiters overlooking various problems that may well have led, in peacetime, to these persons not being let in to the service.

Of course, there have also been questions raised regarding the status of the treatment of mental health issues, post-deployment, particularly with regards to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and specifically questions regarding the level and quality of care at this particular soldiers home base, Joint Base Lewis McChord, in Washington.

All of these are questions that need to be discussed, and should have been discussed, all along. All of these are matters that impact all of us, as these soldiers place themselves in our care, with the promise that for their service to our country, we will take care of them. All of these questions float around the broader policy questions of the status of our current mission in Afghanistan, and how that policy has continued to be implemented after ten years.

All the same, the specifics of the case seem to mitigate any kind of attention to these questions. A soldier walks off base, killing sixteen Afghan civilians, most of the victims being women and children, then calmly walks back to base and turns himself in. With emotions already riding high, thanks to the thoughtless burning of the Muslim holy book, the murders seem to show a certain callousness on the part of American military personnel for the life and well-being of the very people we claim to be serving (secondarily).

There is more than a whiff of CYA in all this talk of TBI, non-treated PTSD, questions regarding the status of the sergeant's mental health prior to his enlistment, etc. I'm guessing if the Army can convince the world this person had multiple issues of which it was not aware, or were only flowering under the pressure of his current deployment, they are in no way responsible through their policies and procedures, for the man being in a place and time where he would suddenly decide that indiscriminate mass murder seemed a good idea.

Since the beginning of our far-too-long military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been persistent, nagging questions regarding the treatment of military personnel with mental and physical health issues. Suicide rates among veterans are enormous, as are rates of domestic violence, divorce, alcoholism, and other indicators of psychological dysfunction. No matter how often these matters are raised, they never seem to be resolved. The people who pay the price are our currently-serving military personnel who are not receiving adequate treatment (let alone standard down time between deployments, at least in this case, which proved to be one case too many for sixteen dead Afghan civilians) and our veterans, who have routinely had their requests for treatment denied. Recently, under court order the military is reviewing thousands of applications for re-evaluation of their diagnoses for PTSD and other psychological problems precisely because the trend has been to deny its presence.

There are just too many questions with no answers here. There just doesn't seem to be enough information to make any judgments regarding the sergeant's mental and emotional state; all this discussion, while on one level refreshing for its candor, just doesn't feel right. Accountability for this crime may well rest not only with the person who committed it; it might just implicate policy makers, military health-care providers, and - dare I say it - we the people who have not worked hard enough to end this conflict, follow through on our commitment to care for our military personnel who have volunteered to sacrifice so much on our behalf. We need to be sure we don't end up covering our own asses even as we try to untangle the many knotted questions that surround this case.

Virtual Tin Cup

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