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Soldier suicides speak to hell of war

Bob Ray Sanders Syndicated columnist

Good News: Millions of Iraqis went to the polls to vote in local elections last weekend in what has been described as basically a “violence-free” event, although not one free of allegations of fraud.

Bad News: An additional 30,000 American troops soon will be headed for Afghanistan, a “surge” which I’m afraid is a few years too late and one that is likely to bog us down in that country for more years than most of us will be able to stomach.

Good News: The return of commerce, social activities and a semblance of normalcy – whatever that is – in Iraq makes it easier for our new president to begin withdrawing more troops (and more rapidly) from that ill-fated conflict.

Bad News: The rebuilding effort in Iraq has been marred by wholesale corruption and mismanagement, costing U.S. taxpayers tens of billions in wasted dollars.

Good News: Although U.S war casualties in Afghanistan have spiked over the past few months, fatalities in Iraq are down significantly over the same period a year ago.

Very Bad News: The number of American soldiers committing suicide is the highest on record. That fact is sad news indeed.

The number of people who have killed themselves perhaps speaks louder to the hell of war than the more than 4,000 Americans fatally wounded in action or by accident during the Iraq conflict.

Those who died at their own hands will forever be a reminder to their families and friends of the horrible consequences of war – just or unjust. Their lives, and deaths, also should forever plague the memories of those of us (including pontificating politicians) who were on the sidelines as they went into battle.

There will be plenty of other reminders, for there are thousands who have returned damaged for the rest of their lives. They have come back with missing limbs, burned-off faces and many other scars of the body and mind. Today, however, let us remember those who were so frightened, so conflicted or so tormented that they simply couldn’t bear to live with the fears, the nightmares, the pain.

Last month, the Army reported that “at least 128 soldiers” had killed themselves in 2008, according to the Associated Press. The wire service said “the final count is likely to be higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are still being investigated.”

The military suicide figures, the worst on record, have continued to rise during this war. In 2006, there were 102 suicides among soldiers, and a total of 115 killed themselves in 2007. The rate of military suicides is higher than the civilian rate for the same period.

The AP quoted Army Secretary Pete Geren as saying, “Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you. We can tell you that across the Army we’re committed to doing everything we can to address the problem.”

Perhaps the best way to “address the problem” is to end this war as soon as possible.

Geren is a smart and good man, but surely he must know that contributing to this surge in the suicide rate are the repeated and extended tours of duty in a war-torn country and the lack of adequate psychiatric treatment for returning soldiers and their families.

I don’t pretend to understand suicide, but many of us know individuals who have come home from wars so changed – so troubled and disturbed – that they simply were no longer the people we knew before they went to battle. We also know that too many who returned never received enough support from the government that robbed them of their innocence and saddled them with unbearable burdens.

Their turmoil can be such that all the care and love from supporting family members are never quite enough to undo what has been done to them.

Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His e-mail address is
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