We met Joe Gonzalez at a golf outing for wounded veterans last summer. Outside, he seemed in good shape, trim and tanned as he swatted balls off a practice tee. His calf muscle rippled under a large tattoo of a red Superman symbol.
But inside, Gonzalez is deeply damaged. The Marine from San Antonio, Texas, was on patrol in Iraq, guarding a supply route, when a roadside bomb blew up his armored vehicle. Four years later, he still suffers from TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
In some ways, life would be easier for Gonzalez if he were missing an arm or using a wheelchair. For Superman, a physical wound is a badge of honor; a psychological wound is a sign of weakness. “The majority of the population doesn’t know the afterlife of all these injuries, like TBI,” Gonzalez told us. “It’s a day-to-day battle; it’s tricky to deal with.” Some days, he feels so tired he “won’t be able to do much.”
We thought of Joe when President Obama announced he would be sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. That means more deployments, more deaths and more soldiers coming home with hidden wounds even their commanders don’t understand very well. TBI and PTSD at least have clinical names. The “afterlife” of combat includes divorce and despair, substance abuse and spousal abuse, joblessness and homelessness – and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Last month, the Army disclosed that 140 active-duty soldiers had taken their own lives in 2009, the same number as all of last year and a jump of 37 percent since 2006. Official figures include an additional 117 suicides in the Navy, Air Force and Marines, and the suicide rate in the armed forces is now greater than in the general population. (Women are taking larger roles in combat zones, but 95 percent of all military suicides are male.)
The military is good at training fighters but not fathers, leaders but not lovers. Soldiers are taught to face physical dangers but not emotional ones. Constant combat can leave them feeling too much pain – or not enough – at the same time. In a fine series on military suicide, the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., quoted one soldier describing his Iraq experience: “We were living as targets at all times for a solid eight months. It was definitely always intense. Eventually, we became numb to everything.”
The psychological “afterlife” of military service must be given top priority by defense officials. This country cannot send soldiers abroad for three and four tours and then discard them once they come home. Only about 30 percent of all suicides take place in a war zone; the rest come after (or before) deployment.
Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations, told the Armed Forces Press Service: “Our folks, while they’re deployed, generally are OK. When they return from the cocoon of deployment, it’s those first six months that are often a vulnerable time.”
Finally, the military brass seems to be grasping this point. The Army last year gave $50 million to the National Institute of Mental Health, to study the psychological dimensions of military service; a pilot program at three bases keeps counseling services open late and on weekends so troubled soldiers can seek help without their commanders knowing.
But the Army faces a severe shortage of mental-health counselors, and in many places, soldiers who need and want therapy can wait a long time for an appointment. One promising idea (that many officers still resist): Make it easier for these troops to locate civilian counselors who are willing to treat them privately and protect their confidence.
The biggest problem, however, is the military culture, a way of life that can be summed up in a series of catchphrases: Suck it up, kick butt, be a man, crying is for women and babies. In that culture, seeking help is stigmatized, not supported, and penalized, not praised.
As Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told a Pentagon briefing: “It is absolutely unacceptable to have individuals suffering in silence because they’re afraid their peers or superiors will make fun of them or, worse, it will adversely affect their careers.”
Combat is a brutal business, and perhaps the military needs soldiers who tattoo Superman symbols on their hearts as well as their legs. But if that’s true, the officers need to send a new message to their troops: It’s OK for Superman to cry.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate and Newspaper Enterprise Assn.