While President George W. Bush, his war cabinet and their consultants are making the rounds this week in their current Iraq war anniversary blitz, pushing their message on the benefits of the conflict, a long-awaited media briefing by the army on the cost part was cancelled.
The elusive report is the product of a mental health advisory team dispatched to Iraq last summer at the request of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) commander general Ricardo Sanchez following a spike in U.S. soldier suicides in July. The report covers only the period until the end of October and as a result is unlikely to contain any numeric bombshells that haven't already been reported. It was to be released earlier this week but the so-called "media roundtable" was postponed once again.
Still, the number of suicides keep climbing, as the army dutifully updates journalists and other interested parties who call.
To date, the Army reports 23 OIF soldiers killed themselves in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003, well above normal Army rates. That number rose very recently because two of five "non-combat" deaths that were under investigation have now been classified as suicides. Then there are the soldiers who have killed themselves back in the United States. That number was six -- until last weekend..
Last Sunday, in Monument, Colo., a 36-year-old Special Forces soldier named William Howell, just three weeks back from Iraq, shot himself in the head. There had been a disturbance; a phone call to the police by his wife. When police arrived at their home, Howell was following his wife around the front yard waving a handgun. "He was ordered to drop his weapon by one of the officers, but instead placed the weapon to his head and pulled the trigger," according to a statement issued by the El Paso County Sheriff's office.
Police said they had no record suggesting there had been any kind of domestic disturbance in the Howell household before William went to Iraq.
The Denver Post observed that the incident "sent shock waves through the military community and forced many around the Colorado Springs-area Army post to ask if Howell was given the help he may have needed to beat combat stress upon returning from the war last month."
For me, the army's suicide data and the tragic homecoming narratives of some Iraq war soldiers are beginning to impugn the administration's apparent cost-benefit ratio. Postponing the release of the Army's long awaited suicide report because it conflicts with the administration's anniversary "take" on the war may alter perception but it doesn't change the indicators that suggest thousands of OIF soldiers could be suffering from the burden of that war.
Wayne F. Smith is a former combat medic in Vietnam and former therapist/counselor at the Veteran's Administration's Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Program. Currently, he is a special assistant to the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.
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