For starters, the United States has never had an all-volunteer corps of soldiers who’ve spent a whole decade in battle—men and women who, by turns, have repeatedly subjected themselves to the horrors of war and the trials of reintegration back home. “Don’t ever underestimate what three, four, five deployments does to you,” Chiarelli tells me this November, as we fly down to Fort Stewart, Georgia, whose 3rd Infantry Division was just returning from Iraq. “It’s uncharted territory, as far as I’m concerned.” Even without repeated deployments, the life cycle of a soldier is a model of brutal compression and, therefore, almost certain to cause distress. “At 24 years of age,” says a striking footnote on page one of the Army’s suicide report, “a Soldier, on average, has moved from home, family, and friends and resided in two other states; has traveled the world (deployed); been promoted four times; bought a car and wrecked it; married and had children; has had relationship and financial problems; seen death; is responsible for dozens of Soldiers; maintains millions of dollars’ worth of equipment; and gets paid less than $40,000 a year.” Now consider what happens when this cycle repeats itself for a decade. “Moving, divorce, death, financial turmoil,” says Lily Burana, author of the memoir I Love a Man in Uniform. “Those are the top stressors in a life. And this is what you get every freaking year in the Army.”
“I didn’t want to be one of those soldiers who wound up shaking a baby.”
It took a long time for the Army to concede that repeated deployments may be lurking behind its escalating suicide rate. Initially, it seemed to argue that the newest generation of soldiers was less psychologically stable. (From 2004 to 2009, the suicide report noted, the Army waivered in a large batch of kids with drug and other criminal records in order to meet its recruitment targets.) But now, based on a more granular analysis conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and a team of researchers from Columbia, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and the Uniformed Services University, Chiarelli believes that it’s not the marginal characters in the Army who are committing suicide in greater numbers. It’s the old hands. “I’ll tell you point-blank,” he says, “though I’ve avoided this conclusion for two years: Where we’re really seeing the increase in suicide is in the population that would never have contemplated suicide—but because of successive deployments, or a single deployment, or an event in a deployment, they go into this danger area.”
The nature of this conflict is also quite unusual. As in Vietnam, the enemy blends in with civilians, rendering everyone a potential threat; but unlike in Vietnam, this war is fought in cities as much as in the hinterlands, which means soldiers are never allowed to mentally decompress. There’s no front in this war, and no rear either, which means there’s no place to go where the mortar rounds aren’t. “I was up at Walter Reed the other day,” Chiarelli tells me on the airplane, “and I ran into a young kid who lost both his legs, wayyyyyy up. I asked him, ‘How did it happen?’ You know what he said?” He pauses, looks at me intently. He’s big and barrel-chested, with crow’s feet so pronounced they look like they’ve been stamped into his temples with a fork. “He said, ‘Sir, I was standing in line at the PX to get shaving cream, and a 120-millimeter mortar came in and took off both my legs.’ ”
And on top of this unremitting combat anxiety, our soldiers have to cope with unremitting domestic anxiety of a sort that previous generations never knew, because these soldiers are Skype-ing with their families several times a week, even from the mountains of Afghanistan. At first, the Army believed this constant contact might help mitigate loneliness. Now, Chiarelli frankly acknowledges, he’s not so sure, “because technology just drags you back home, where your 22-year-old wife is having trouble finding a job and has a couple of kids she’s taking care of on her own.” Many soldiers are also addicted to Facebook, whose tagging function is proving a mixed blessing. “Soldiers are seeing pictures of their loved ones in bars, pictures of their loved ones in outrageous behaviors with sexual overtones,” says Colonel Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist in the Army Reserve who’s been deployed four times. “Everything they’re hanging on to is demolished. What’s sustaining them is torn away.”
Even with an intact marriage, the challenge of repeated reintegration into the home front can be dislocating. Soldiers come home to find their sons doing chores they once did, their wives with independent lives, their professional duties in flux. It’s no accident that 80 percent of all Army suicides in 2009 happened Stateside, after the euphoria of homecoming had worn off. It’s why the Army now requires follow-up visits to a behavioral-health specialist six months after soldiers return. Complicating matters, nearly half of today’s Army comes from the National Guard and Reserve, whose soldiers return from each tour not to an Army base but to small towns or big cities, where their jobs are hardly assured and their peers are far less likely to identify with their experiences. “They go back to a community that says, ‘Oh, you were in Iraq. Did you kill anybody?’ ” says Thomas H. Bornemann, director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, who treated soldiers at Fort McPherson during the Vietnam War. “They’re dealing with voyeurs wanting to know intimate things, things they’re going to find hard to talk to their wives about.” Nor do they necessarily see doctors who know anything about combat medicine. “The Guard and Reserve, that’s the population I’m really scared of,” Chiarelli says. “I’ve got 45 more suicides in the National Guard this year than last year. Forty-five.” And in fact, the Army would later release data saying the number of suicides from the National Guard and Reserve nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010.