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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!

It is said that "with every single chevron obtained, there comes more responsibility and authority." Anybody who has served knows that this might be especially true in the case of administrative tasks, but in reality, in practice, what every chevron means is usually more "delegation" of authority: the authority of holding others responsible, thus creating a chain of people well-versed people in military matters, but usually inadequately knowledgeable about the realities of life. There is always a weak (ignorant) link to be found somewhere in this chain of command, who, when confronted with the mental illness diagnosis of one of his underlings, decides that his own insignias actually mean something in the real world.

Mistaking the number of chevrons on his sleeves for an indicator of his level of intellect, this ever so commonly found "know-it-all" decides to label the affected soldier as lazy, a weakling, or a plain malingerer. The boot camp mentality rises to the occasion, and off he goes to pressure out or exorcize what he considers to be rubbish, blatantly disregarding the professional opinions of those who (in most cases) made it out of high school by actually attending, and hold degrees and high levels of expertise in what he willfully knows nothing about.  This officer typically lacks the humility to realize that his rank and years of service within the protective confinement of the military do not bestow upon him the ability to know everything.

Given the fact that military leaders have so much control over our children's lives, shouldn't they be expected to know a little bit more about life as well? The least an NCO (non-commissioned officer) or officer should do when one of his subordinates is diagnosed with a mental illness is to become informed about the subject. Consult the very physicians taking care of the soldier and ask what they can do to assist, or at least how can they avoid making the situation any worse. Instead, often the individual suffering from this illness is subjected to unnecessary pressure, embarrassment, ridicule and public humiliation.

The emotional blows received by many service members suffering from mental illness, at the hands of those who are supposedly there to support, guide and protect them, end up undermining them, deepening their wounds and lowering their self esteem, scarring them to the point where the illness becomes more lasting or even permanent. Many perfectly brilliant and productive military careers are unnecessarily ended early. Valuable personnel are carelessly lost because of the lack of dignity and respect with which they are treated, in direct contrast to the care and nurturing extended to those wounded while patrolling through hostile territory. Ironically, the very same person who under other circumstances, in an act of selflessness and heroism, would thoughtlessly risk enemy fire to save a young soldier's life, is now the person pushing him to the edge of madness, perhaps with catastrophic results. This wrongful approach, this eagerness of military leaders to alienate and get rid of a "problematic" soldier suffering from depression, is not only detrimental to the patient, but to the military as well.

Anyone who knows anything about depression knows that it can become such a debilitating illness, that it can render an individual unfit for many tasks. In some cases, mental illnesses such as depression become completely incapacitating. It is obvious that a person suffering from a debilitating depression cannot be allowed to remain in service. But deciding whether the illness has reached that point should be left to the professionals, not to the platoon sergeant, squad leader, or even the company commander to decide. Many people who have suffered from depression can function perfectly well professionally. Furthermore, just because you suffer an episode of depression, doesn't necessarily mean that you will remain depressed forever.

Depression can be endogenous or exogenous in nature. The former is much more difficult to combat and eradicate. Endogenous depression is caused by genetic factors that make the individual prone to breaking down easily when facing an external stressor, or simply to experiencing a depressive episode without any apparent reason.  Exogenous depression, on the other hand, is caused by an external situation which the individual finds it difficult to cope with on his own. Once you identify the main life problem causing the situation, you can address it and begin working towards a successful solution.

Regrettably, the lack of knowledge in the military, and the flat-out lack of desire to recognize and learn about something that is reaching epidemic levels within our nation, makes it impossible for those in charge to spot these cases, and even more difficult for those afflicted to even realize something is going on with them and feel safe enough to reach out and seek help.

In the times we live in, there seems to be war, or the possibility of war, breaking out everywhere.  With so many of our young men and women in harm's way, serving their country proudly, it's appalling that we must also hear how a young soldier has felt so overwhelmed by life that his only way out has been to end his life prematurely! Many if not all of these young men and women had been fighting depression, whether diagnosed or not. All the signals must have been there in each and every one of these 169 cases, but ignorance is usually the greatest blinding force. They fell through. We have all failed them.

How many of these precious lives could have been spared, if their leaders had possessed the knowledge and the tools to distinguish and care for these wounded soldiers? How many could still be with us if their leaders had lived up to the word (leader), honoring each and every single one of the 23 leadership traits which they learn, brag about, and talk so much about, but few actually seem to possess? Tact, empathy, compassion, and humility are usually the leadership traits that begin fading away as the chevrons and awards pile up. We are still looking for those true, yet "few good men," now more than ever. There are still plenty of them. Let the real leaders step forward and take charge.

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