“There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.”
— George Patton
The mental aspect of war may not have been part of the equation for U.S. Army Gen. George Patton, unless it was a byproduct of the demoralization of enemy troops achieved by convincing them that victory for their side was not going to happen. But if it wasn’t acknowledged then, it is being acknowledged now.
In an era when warplanes can fly their missions without human pilots on board, and bombing raids can be launched miles away from targets, America’s enemies still have a nasty weapon that is capable of compromising our troops’ ability to perform the missions for which they have so diligently trained.
The military appears to have decided it’s time to face this head-on.
On Thursday last week, the Pentagon announced that senior military officers could be talking about their emotional struggles on YouTube and MySpace this year as part of a Pentagon campaign to urge troops into counseling for wartime mental problems. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said that getting therapy “is not going to count against” troops when they apply for national security clearances.
A new policy on security clearances and the idea of a planned national awareness campaign on mental illness are efforts by a Defense Department struggling to care for the many thousands of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional wounds.
Part of the problem, the Defense Department said, is changing a military culture that equates such problems with weakness and so stigmatizes those getting treatment.
The announcement last week followed a report in April from the Rand Corp. that found 20 percent of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s at least 300,000, a figure that’s close to the number who have fallen victim to head injuries — at least 320,000.
Many victims in both groups fail to report their impairment, which not only skews the records but also increases the likelihood of worsening symptoms or of relapse. In many situations, it seems soldiers don’t report “minor” concussions, especially if the skin is unbroken. After all, they’ve seen their favorite football players go back into the game after knocked silly, and they know they’ve tougher than those guys, right? It’s time to suck it up and soldier on, or their commanding officers might get the wrong idea.
What they may not know, or may not fully appreciate, is that even a “minor” head injury could have future consequences that will adversely affect their ability to perform their assignments in days and months to come.
Better education and attitudes toward head injuries can change that. But with mental problems, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s a disorder that’s not been completely accepted by military leaders, and their concerns about harassment and retaliation have not been fully dispelled. If soldiers are reluctant to seek help after a blow to the head, it’s no wonder they don’t speak up when they’re coping with something like depression.
It’s encouraging that, according to national reports, the Army surgeon general received the Rand report with an expression of appreciation, not with excuses. Then, it was followed with the announcement by the Defense Department’s campaign to urge troops into counseling for wartime mental problems and the new policy on national security clearances.
The Associated Press quoted Secretary Gates as describing post-traumatic stress disorder as “the unseen wounds” of war, and touring a visit to a PTSD care center he pointed to a double-barreled plan of attack: developing care and treatment for those who need it, and removing the stigma connected with doing so.
The latter may be the more difficult of the two goals. But at least the targets are in clear view now, and the commitment to the mission has been made.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.