The conflict in Afghanistan claimed the lives of 295 Americans last year. That's the terrible nature of war. But what do you call it when 349 U.S. servicemen and women take their own lives in the same year?
A record, unfortunately – one Leslie Haines fears will soon be shattered unless the nation quickly acts to prevent it.
Haines' prediction of still-higher suicide rates as America's military scales back its war on terror should not be dismissed, because she saw it coming. Having experienced the conflict's human toll while serving as a Military Police officer in Iraq and at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, she founded the Lutheran Military Veterans and Families Ministries Inc. five years ago. Haines was convinced that the fast-changing nature of war, technology and military service had created potentially deadly problems that were not adequately being addressed.
The suicide statistics prove she was right. The question is: Why – and what can be done about it?
“We tend to romanticize World War II, but we see increases in suicide, spouse abuse and divorce after every war,” said Haines, who is also a Lutheran deaconess.
But the nature of the war on terror has exacerbated war's inherent psychological impact in several ways, she added: multiple deployments; constantly changing rules of engagement that allow soldiers to shoot one day but withhold fire the next; the enemy's use of women and children as weapons or human shields; the constant but hidden threat posed by bombs or improvised explosive devices; and decisions obviously intended for political gain, not military advantage.
“They wonder, 'What is our mission?'” Haines said.
The Veterans Administration is understaffed to meet the demand for mental-health services, Haines said, and in any case does not exist to provide spiritual care. Her organization works to foster both by evaluating needs, providing short-term pastoral or other forms of counseling, helping veterans and their families gain access to services, and training congregations and other caregivers to recognize and address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other potential dangers.
Haines said something else worth considering in the wake of the fake-girlfriend hoax apparently experienced by Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. “So many people spend a lot of time on Facebook, but they have no face time. People have forgotten how to be friends. They're distanced from their fellow human beings.”
In other words, people dealing with emotional trauma need to talk to a real person, not a virtual one.
With that in mind, Haines' organization will sponsor a day-long seminar in March intended to equip clergy, family members, friends and others to treat scars inflicted by the “Invisible Wounds of War.” Sessions will help those in attendance understand the causes of PTSD; how the military culture affects members' decision-making; and how military service can create barriers between veterans and caregivers. Speakers will include Dr. Paula Caplan, a clinical psychologist and author of “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home.”
If nothing changes, the title could prove prophetic. With the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan now over or winding down, thousands of servicemen and women will be returning home to new stresses, Haines said, including an economy that is creating few jobs, especially for those lacking marketable civilian education and skills.
Although Haines accepts the reality that the military's first priority must be to keep enough boots on the ground to fulfill its mission, she nevertheless believes it should improve both its capacity to identify and treat psychological problems and its willingness to prevent them when possible.
In the meantime, she'll do what she can to help.
“So many (returning veterans) are spiritually damaged,” she said. “But if you're available for them, listen to them, love them, it can help. They'll be less apt to take themselves out if they feel they're not alone.”
Gone, but not forgotten
In my Dec. 8 column about efforts to rejuvenate the Christ Child Festival -- believed to be the last of its kind in the U.S. -- the sole surviving founder of the 61-year-old annual event suggested “We should gave festivals like this all over the world . . . God wants recognition of his son, and with all the turmoil, the world needs it.”
Having died Jan. 27, Alex Bojrab is now recognizing God in person. But not before leaving Fort Wayne a legacy that attracted more participants and spectators than it had in years.