By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
Despite much “lip service” about mental health issues by U.S. military leaders, suicide rates for military personnel continue to climb, retired U.S. Army Col. Kris Thompson said on Nevada Newsmakers.
“We have had a horrible time in the Army, being able to address this,” Thompson recently told host Sam Shad. “People (with high ranks in the military) don’t want to talk about it. It is a subject that is taboo to bring up and really discuss.”
U.S. Army data backs up Thompson’s assertion: The U.S. Army recently saw its worst quarter in the past six years for active-duty suicides, according to data released by the Pentagon in July.
From January to March of 2023, 49 active-duty suicides were reported, compared to 37 in the same time frame in 2022.
“They (military leaders) will talk about a plan. They will talk about how it is getting better … but it is actually been increasing lately,” Thompson said. “Even the USO, Army Times, they are all noting that the suicides have actually increased for both active duty and veterans.”
Military commanders are still waiting for promised updated service-wide policies from the Pentagon on suicide prevention that were first scheduled to be released in 2021, according to a report in Military.com.
“We’re great at helping soldiers who have physical injuries, loss of limbs, facial injuries, like our (U.S.) Senate candidate (former U.S. Army Capt. Sam Brown) had experienced in combat. We’re great at treating that. We’re horrible at treating the mental-health part,” Thompson said.
Pentagon leaders are also struggling to get mental-health resources to military bases. The U.S. military is sometimes unable to compete with private sector facilities for salaries as the nation is struggling with an overall shortage of mental-health professionals, Military.com reported.
Today’s military also struggles with mental-health solutions because it is ingrained into military personnel that it is better to keep quiet about their mental-health issues, Thompson said.
“If you talk about suicide, if you focus too much on it, the Army doesn’t like to hear that,” Thompson said. “So it is an unresolved issue that keeps getting worse.”
Reporting any personal mental-health issues can be a career-killer in the the U.S. Army, Thompson said.
“In every step of the way, if you were to report to your superiors that you are seeking treatment or that you wanted counseling or you had something to deal with from your last rotation, your career is over,” Thompson said. “You will never get another command.”
Thompson complimented Nevada’s congressional delegation for their concern about military suicides and mental health but the Pentagon is responsible for improving the mental health of servicemen and women, Thompson said.
“There is only so much Congress can do,” Thompson said. “Congress can’t make plans for the Pentagon or tell the VA (Veterans Administration) how to do their services. It is up to the leadership in the Pentagon and it is up to the leadership in the VA. And if they don’t have the money, they should tell Congress what they need.”
The military is also too small for the world-wide commitments of the United States, Thompson said. That lack of manpower is partially responsible for the mental-health issues.
“No. 1 is, you don’t have soldiers doing five tours in Iraq,” he said. “When you have that much repeated combat, you are going to have issues for quite awhile.
“Reserve-component soldiers (National Guard), who signed up in case of a national emergency, sometimes now are being sent over there (Middle East combat zones) five or six times. It is ridiculous,” Thompson continued.
“That is warfare on the cheap,” he continued. “It is overextending our too few soldiers too much because you don’t want to enlarge the military.
“At this point, they are sending National Guard units overseas, often times more frequently than the active-duty units. And it is because the military has become too small for the commitments our politicians make,” he said.
Those who make it back to the U.S. after combat deployments may find it difficult to find help for mental-health issues, Thompson said.
“No. 2, when they come home, they’ve got to have a plan in place for a transition,” he said. “When I came home from Desert Storm, there was no real checks on how the solider is doing, and what they have experienced. There is nobody to really talk to.”
The Veterans Administration ongoing services shares the blame for the mental-health crisis,” Thompson said.
“I’ll give you an example. My brother was a company commander in the Iraq War. They were there for about six months. They took a lot of mortar fire, machine gun fire. They lost some of their soldiers. It was hard on him.
“He came back (to the U.S.) and he’s a guy who puts his whole soul into something. He came back and he was not the same guy. He emptied himself over in the sands of Iraq. He went to the VA. At first, they put him on pills. He became a zombie. My brother, myself, our Dad and Mom helped him as much as we could.
“My brother and I actually went to the head of the VA in Denver,” Thompson continued. “We called our congressman for help. They would not address the issues that were affecting him.
“I’ll never forget, they sent him home from the VA one time and said, ‘We think he is in danger of a suicide.’
“(I asked) So why are you sending him home? Putting all of this on the family?
“So after someone leaves the service, there’s a lot that they (VA) could be doing but are not doing,” Thompson said.