I mention that he strikes me as the type of person people would be eager to help heal—surely his new acquaintances in New York are trying to cobble together a social life for him? “A lot of people are trying,” he says. He laughs uneasily. “It’s hard.” He says that he had a girlfriend back in San Diego. The relationship didn’t last. “It’s a lot to ask of somebody.”
I ask if being in New York is any better, since New Yorkers tend to be more open about their psychological pain than most people, discussing their drug dosages at dinner parties.
He gives me a pained, strained look that makes me realize how foolish—how cavalier and beside the point—this question is. “Yeah,” he finally says. “But it’s getting into the dinner party that’s hard. That’s not going to happen. I was very outgoing before. Now I keep to myself.”
Even at the lowest point of the Global War on Terror—in April 2004, say, when the number of casualties was spinning out of control and it looked like there was no end in sight—morale among our troops ran fairly high. Yet today, with casualties tapering and a slightly improved prognosis for stability, our troops, by every conceivable external measure, are falling apart. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars make up a disproportionate number of the jobless; the Army’s divorce rate, which used to be lower than the civilian population’s, has surpassed it and is higher still among those who’ve deployed. A spokesman at Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division here in New York State, tells me by e-mail that one-quarter of its 20,000 soldiers have “received some type of behavioral health evaluation and/or treatment during the past year.” Defense Department spending on Ambien, a popular sleep aid, and Seroquel, an antipsychotic, has doubled since 2007, according to the Army Times, while spending on Topamax, an anti-convulsant medication often used for migraines, quadrupled; amphetamine prescriptions have doubled, too, according to the Army’s own data. Meanwhile, a study by the Rand Corporation has found that 20 percent of the soldiers who’ve deployed in this war report symptoms of post-traumatic stress and major depression.The number climbs to almost 30 percent if the soldiers have deployed more than twice.
“I feel like people with my symptoms are becoming the majority of the Army,” says a major from the New York area who recently started taking Effexor, an antidepressant, and a variety of sleep meds after a second tour in Iraq. “Feeling anxious when you don’t have a reason to, being a little depressed, having low-grade anhedonia, not sleeping well—this is the new normal for those of us who’ve been repeatedly deployed.”
The Army’s own research confirms that drug and alcohol abuse, disciplinary infractions, and criminal activity are increasing among active-duty service members. Most ominously, a growing number of soldiers can’t handle the strains of war at all. Until three years ago, the suicide rate of the Army, the branch with by far the most men and women in this war, was actually lower than the American population’s—a testament to the hardiness of our troops, given that young men with weapons are, at least as a statistical matter, disproportionately prone to suicide. But in 2008, the Army suicide rate surpassed that of the civilian population’s, and the Marines’ surpassed it shortly thereafter. So grim is the problem that this summer, the Army released a remarkably candid suicide report. “If we include accidental death, which frequently is the result of high-risk behavior (e.g., drinking and driving, drug overdose),” it concluded, “we find that less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions. Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”
In other words, nearly as many soldiers are dying at home today as are dying abroad.
For most of the past decade, the Army has downplayed the collateral damage this war has had on our soldiers’ nerves. Until The Nation brought the practice to light last spring, the Army sometimes assigned the label of “personality disorder” to those suffering from post-traumatic stress, often rendering them ineligible for disability; Warrior Transition Units have continually earned harsh scrutiny, most recently from the Army’s inspector general himself. Under the direction of Peter W. Chiarelli, the four-star general and vice-chief of staff, the Army has at least made an effort to lend some transparency to its troubles and to address them more aggressively. The problem is that the Army woke up to its mental-health crisis quite late, and the more closely Chiarelli looks into the issue, the more confounding it seems to be to solve.