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Depression and the Military

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Many are the stories we hear about the bravery of our soldiers on the battlefield. Among these stories, the most remarkable are usually those that describe how one of our finest, selflessly laying his life on the line, manages to save one of his own. The ties binding our fighting men within the ranks of our military need to be experienced in order to be understood. No amount of words, no Hollywood movie, patriotic song or beautiful poem, could ever come close to accurately describing this bond. So powerful a bond is this, that it is common for a junior or senior enlisted man, or a higher ranking officer, in the prime of their lives, to courageously launch his body on top of a grenade, or walk straight into the line of fire – his hopes and dreams vanishing in the blink of an eye – to ensure the safe return home of someone he probably didn't even know a year before.

But what happens to the injured who have yet to see combat? What happens to those who are left behind in garrison, in direct support of our fighting men, and queued to follow? The treatment and care extended to those wounded in the battlefield, by those who actually send them there, is full of compassion, empathy, and support. Sadly, somehow, somewhere, something is lost, and the same displays of courage, affection, and understanding extended by senior enlisted men and officers to those wounded in the battlefield are seldom experienced by those who suffer wounds other than those caused by enemy fire. This is particularly true in the case of those suffering from the injuries inflicted by a silent yet deadly enemy: mental illness.

Mental disorders are common in the United States and internationally. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. If we only concentrate on depression (perhaps the most common mental illness), the numbers are equally astounding! 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, suffer from Major Depressive Disorder within a given year.

                                      – National Institute of Mental Health

Should the military be exempt from this reality? Where do our soldiers come from, if not from within the hearts of our cities and farms; from our slums, and upmarket, ritzy neighborhoods? Our military is, after all, a mere reflection of our society; therefore it should be no surprise to see its members being plagued by the same evils that affect our nation as a whole.

Being diagnosed with severe major depression while "in uniform" is definitely one of the most difficult challenges faced by any military member, especially if the individual knows he can keep up with his duties and still wants to remain in the service of our nation. The extent of ignorance surrounding this illness, and the resistance by so many of our military leaders to understanding it and acknowledging it as a treatable, but debilitating illness that affects every aspect of the individual's life (rather than a mere reflection of weakness), is completely unjustified and downright negligent. More should be demanded and expected from our senior enlisted members and officers in general. The men and women in charge of our young soldiers, those whom they look up to for advice, leadership and guidance, should be held to higher levels of professionalism and intellectuality.

Someone who is entrusted with our children's lives, someone who has the authority to control and even run their lives in ways unimaginable for those who have never served in the military, should step up to their responsibilities and learn that the battlefield is not the only place where they are expected to be heroes. Saving a life shouldn't be exclusive to the theatre of war, especially when we consider that in 2008, approximately 169 soldiers and marines ended their own lives. Where were those in charge when this was happening? Were they doing all they could to keep these young men and women safe? My best and only guess is no!

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