Chattanooga: The burden of war

Chattanooga: The burden of war

February 26th, 2009 by Lauren Gregory in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Ben Crary stands in front of a dedicated USMC wall in his Collegedale residence Monday afternoon. Mr. Crary suffers from post traumatic stress disorder from the time he spent in the military.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry Ben Crary stands in...

In his dreams, Ben Crary was always falling. So on the day he said he was ready to die, it felt right to plan one last plunge.

The Walnut Street Bridge would finally free him from the sickening reality in which the former Marine lance corporal lived.

It was a mid-winter day about a year ago and, like every other day, the film reel in his head looped through scenes of sand, spattered brains and lost limbs. One boy in particular haunted him. He could feel the baby's cracked skull in his hands, and he could hear the child's Iraqi parents pleading with him and his fellow Marines for help.

That memory came back regularly while he was still deployed, cultivating a death wish that he said prompted him to shed his body armor often and walk around like an open target in hopes an enemy sniper would end his misery.

But that hadn't worked, so, after returning home, the bridge it was. Just before he reached for his car keys, Mr. Crary said he thought to pick up the phone and call a counselor he'd been in touch with since his return to the states in May 2007. That call saved his life, he said.

"If I couldn't have gotten a hold of anybody on the phone, I probably would have driven right out there," the 27-year-old Chattanooga resident said. "The constant thoughts of Iraq were just making me really, really, really depressed, and they wouldn't get out of my mind. They were driving me nuts."

High Suicide Rate

Mr. Crary is one of the lucky ones. An increasing number of veterans are surviving combat but not the after-effects - namely post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD and accompanying addictions or mood disorders create a fatal recipe that veteran advocates say is contributing to a staggering suicide rate among military personnel.

The U.S. Marine Corps reports that a service member dies by suicide every two days, and one attempts suicide every two hours.

Deployed troops are not the only ones feeling the pain. Statistics show that more than one-third of suicide attempts are with military personnel who've never been in combat.

Compounding the problem is the sense of self-sufficiency that the military instills in recruits, independence that makes it hard for them to ask for help even when they need it, officials said.

The problem is not a new one, said Mike Ferner, board president of the St. Louis, Mo.-based anti-war group Veterans for Peace.

"It's what happens when you put people in those situations," he said. "You send people into combat, and you get post-traumatic stress and suicide."

However, he said, the suicide issue has received increased attention in recent weeks after the Associated Press reported that the Army - which makes up most of the ground force in Middle Eastern combat zones - had seven confirmed suicides in the month of January, plus another 17 suspected cases under investigation.

If those 17 are confirmed - and 90 percent of pending suicide cases generally are, according to Army officials - that would mean 24 suicides during the month. In comparison, 11 soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan during that period.

Department of Defense RESPONSE

The Department of Defense hasn't taken the news lightly.

Officials have acknowledged that the stress of repeated deployments has probably contributed to the problem, as has the stigma of seeking help. Though counseling and prevention programs are in place in all branches of the service, officials say more are needed.

"We're committed to doing everything we can to address (the issues) better (and) put programs in place," Army Secretary Pete Geren announced during a recent media roundtable at the Pentagon.

The Army is in the middle of a "stand-down," which requires that individual units devote a day between Feb. 15 and March 15 to suicide prevention training. The stand-down will be followed by 120 days of "chain teaching" across the entire Army.

Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs is publicizing a service-wide suicide prevention hotline first launched in July 2007.

But there's more research to be done, they say, since it's not just those who have seen combat who are committing suicide. Army data show that 30 percent of suicides are during deployment and another 35 percent are post-deployment. However, the final 35 percent have no deployment history at all.

"I think those statistics have to be looked at, and more questions have to be asked," said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli.

The National Institute of Mental Health is preparing to launch a $50 million, multi-year study to address the many lingering questions, according to an Army news release.

No Easy Solution

Opinion is mixed on the possibility of solving the military's suicide epidemic.

Dr. Richard Mauroner, an adult psychiatrist in Chattanooga, said that early invention can do a great deal to mitigate the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome and hopefully cure it entirely before suicidal thoughts emerge.

"The longer it persists, it becomes more refractory to treatment, so that's one reason it is important to get treatment early," Dr. Mauroner said. "I think that's what the military is doing now and I think that shows that they are more interested in trying to prevent it."

Psychotherapy - and, when necessary, medication or concurrent treatment of substance abuse problems - can help, he said.

Unfortunately, many service members slip through the cracks because they choose not to seek treatment, said Michael Bearden, the licensed social worker who leads the counseling team at the VA's Chattanooga Vet Center.

"They're afraid to tell people they have these thoughts, because they're afraid they will be locked up," Mr. Bearden said. "They need to be told that having these ideations is understandable, and we can do something about it."

The problem is that the military is actually breeding this attitude into its personnel because it must foster a sense of stubborn self-reliance in order to create successful battlefield warriors, said David Fenell, formerly an Army reservist and now a professor and chairman of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Department of Counseling and Human Services.

"When we bring people into the military, we train them and try to create a resilient capacity within them, so that when bad things happen, they can process them and integrate them and then continue on with the mission," Dr. Fenell said.

The culture is starting to shift as many commanders begin to buy into the idea that mental health problems aren't about personal weakness, he said. However, the idea just hasn't trickled down to most of the rank-and-file.

"I think it's going to be a gradual transition as (service members) become more and more accepting of the fact that, No. 1, it won't hurt your career. And No. 2, it won't affect you permanently," he said.

Mr. Crary said he always knew that help was available but, like many of his fellow Marines, didn't think it was important. He started counseling sessions with Mr. Bearden in order to appease family and friends.

"I thought, 'This is stupid. They don't know what I'm going through,'" Mr. Crary recalled. "But then, I didn't know it, but it started helping... (Mr. Bearden) coached me through everything. He can't stop the flashbacks, but he can tell me what to do to help control them."

Mr. Ferner, meanwhile, remains convinced that nothing short of world peace will reverse the suicide trend.

"All of the good medications and the good medications in the world are not going to fix things," he said. "The problem is sending people to war in the first place."