When I joined the Army, I took a creed to “never leave a fallen comrade.” Now it appears that the military community to which I belong is failing to honor that creed.
I was disheartened but unsurprised to read the newly released Government Accountability Office report finding that 62% of servicemembers who received less than honorable discharges suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries, or other mental-health illnesses. Misconduct based discharges, or “bad papers,” bar more than 57,000 veterans from receiving many benefits, including treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Among its findings, the report stated that individual service branches only inconsistently adhered to Department of Defense policy on misconduct separations, or did not adhere to their own policies they set to ensure that servicemembers with mental health issues didn’t fall through the cracks.
Though the report is extensive, it is ultimately incomplete because it doesn’t address the cultural norms in the military from which this injustice stems. Until we do that, we will continue to leave behind those who swore to protect and defend us.
At its core, the military is a violent organization with violent objectives—to fight and win wars. No matter what an individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine’s occupational specialty may be, everything he or she does is in service to that objective. It’s only natural then that the warrior ethos of the combat arms dominate military culture. After all, how often do top admirals and generals come from support branches? In such a culture, leaders are conditioned to weed out anyone who might be unfit to fight.
The result is a culture in which aggression and physical prowess are prized, while compassion and infirmities are derided. For example, until recently combat branches were restricted to men, so many combat soldiers consider women categorically weak and out of place in a man’s military. The nude photo scandal is evidence of how this hyper-masculine ethos mutated and went awry. The hazing death of Raheel Siddiqui is another.
It follows that this culture would also shun mental illness as weakness, which is why seeking help for mental health remains stigmatized, despite the best efforts of top brass and the VA to stem the epidemic of suicides. Suffering in silence and self-medicating with alcohol is still seen by many who serve as nobler than admitting weakness by seeking care.
I was a cavalry scout platoon leader in Afghanistan, a lieutenant. We served in Wardak province from 2010 to 2011. That year, we had helped recover a Chinook helicopter downed by the Taliban, claiming 30 American lives. We saw what the enemy was capable of, and if we were to get home alive I needed my men to be aggressive.
The men under my leadership picked on one soldier because he was one of the last of us to earn his Combat Action Badge. No CAB, they called him. Nonetheless, he performed his duty. He eventually received his CAB, but not without the trauma that comes with the award. During a firefight, the enemy fired a 107mm rocket which detonated meters away from his vehicle. Immediately after the shooting stopped, he began exhibiting symptoms of TBI—slowed reactions, bleeding from the ears, a headache.
The right answer would have been to return to base to seek medical attention for him, but we had a mission to complete. We would fight the enemy again that night when insurgents attempted to assault his vehicle with grenades. I remember listening to his confusion and frustration on the radio, his TBI symptoms worsening as the day wore into night.
After that day, his career spiraled out of control. During our return trip, he got violently drunk and vomited on a sergeant Major’s boots. He cheated on his wife. He turned to drink, and then to drugs. At that point my trust in him eroded as he became a liability to the team. His comrades and I, who endured a year of hardship beside him, turned our backs on him.
The GAO report notes how ill-prepared officers such as myself were to help soldiers address their mental illnesses, and I wonder if he might be in a better place today if I had been more compassionate then. He received non-judicial-punishment for illegal substance abuse, and because of the Army’s zero tolerance policy towards drugs, we kicked him out of the Army, stripped of rank, on a misconduct-based discharge. He left the military ostracized and angry. Last I heard he had pursued a congressional inquiry into his discharge, but that was years ago and nothing came of it.
I’m not proud of it now, but I was glad to be rid of him. Never mind that the nature of his discharge carried a similar weight to a felony conviction, all but ensuring that he can’t receive help for the conditions that plague him.
I struggled with PTSD in my own way. The killing I was a party to will stay with me forever.
Those of us who sought help in-country were singled out when we returned home, lined up in front of everybody. I experienced overwhelming shame. The aid station prescribed me an SSRI and told me to report to behavioral health, where a social worker said she could see me once a month so that I had to seek counseling off-base. Even so, I had internalized the hyper-masculine stigma against seeking help, so I was reticent during sessions and my attendance lapsed. It would be nearly a year before I received a formal PTSD diagnosis.
It wasn’t long afterward that a good friend who had mentored me as a junior officer sat me down and asked me why I had taken our Afghanistan deployment so hard. He was one of the few soldiers I spoke with openly about our deployment. As I tried to find the right words, he polished off a twelve-pack of beer. Subsequently, I kept as quiet as possible about my condition. I turned to drinking, and was prone to bouts of aggression—throwing chairs, stabbing walls. It wasn’t until I tried to kill myself that my chain of command and the Army’s behavioral health system took my condition seriously.
I came dangerously close to following my disgraced soldier’s downward spiral. If it hadn’t been for the love and care of my wife and my comrades in arms, I too may have left the military dishonored, and unable to access care for my PTSD. I have a long battle with PTSD ahead of me still, one that I would have lost long ago without access to care.
I am grateful that time softened my perspective and allowed me to be more forgiving of myself and the many soldiers who received bad discharges under my watch. Regardless, I was both a victim of a toxic culture, and complicit in perpetuating it. I continue to contend with my place in the military’s aggressive warrior ethos because I remain proud of my service, and proud of the men beside whom I served. I grapple with it because that aggression kept me and my men alive in combat.
The problem is that for all the ways that we know how to fight and kill in modern warfare, we have yet to learn that nurturing and healing are integral to maintaining the good order and discipline of our military. Perhaps if I had not let the military’s culture of violence seduce me, I would have realized that. While I am willing to accept my culpability, the military exists in a society that is disconnected from the wars it fights. Injustices in the military, from sexual trauma, to hazing, to the disservice exposed by the GAO report continue because civil society is too removed to be outraged.
It was civil society that sent the military to fight America’s longest war, so the onus cannot be on the military alone to implement reforms — and there are ways to make a meaningful impact now. Civilians and veterans alike should petition their representatives to pass H.R.4683, the Fairness for Veterans Act, which seeks to help veterans in appealing bad-paper discharges if they suffer from military sexual trauma, PTSD, or TBI, so they can receive much needed care.
And even that would only be the first step in remedying the policy problem highlighted by the GAO. While the military has experienced radical reforms in the past ten years, including the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the integration of women into combat roles, we still have a long way to go.
Our own President bragged about assaulting women. He was quick to use military force. He belittled veterans who suffer from mental illness incurred during their service and even prisoners of war. In many ways he embodies the brutality in American culture, and the military by extension.
The military is a reflection of who we all are as a nation—our best qualities, and our worst. Until we change as a country, we cannot expect the same from the institutions that defend us.