When Mental Healthcare Goes AWOL

America must quit treating its National Guardsmen and reserves like second-class soldiers.

To an unprecedented extent, President Bush has been relying on the men and women of our National Guard to help fight his war in Iraq. Today, they make up approximately 20 percent of the force, down from a high of 48 percent during the summer of 2005. More than 425,179 guardsmen and reservists have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of citizen-soldiers killed in Iraq is more than four times the number that died in Vietnam, a fact that President Bush did not mention when he recently compared the two wars.

Those weekend warriors who return from Iraq alive do not get the crucial services they need -- especially mental healthcare. Many of them were never given post-combat mental health evaluations and are no longer eligible for treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some have to wait more than two years to get it.

Active-duty troops can get year-round mental healthcare, but Guard members, once demobilized, "have virtually no access to healthcare," according to Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, Washington National Guard, who testified at a recent hearing held by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

This hearing took place one day after the Pentagon revealed that 99 Army soldiers committed suicide last year -- the highest rate in more than 25 years. Failed suicide attempts outnumbered suicides by almost 10 to one, according to the Pentagon's report. That report did not include Marines, airmen or soldiers who killed themselves after separating from service, or citizen-soldiers.

Nearly half of all members of the National Guard vets are exhibiting post-combat mental health problems, according to the Pentagon's Mental Health Task Force.

National Guard Spc. Brandon Jones, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, testified about one of his buddies: "My friend was medevac'd because of the stresses of combat. He was supposed to be on suicide watch. He was supposed to have been receiving counseling and medication. He was sent home alone! He put a gun to his head and took his own life."

Active-duty troops participate in post-deployment follow-up for three months, and their regular contact with fellow soldiers facilitates decompression and reintegration. By contrast, guardsmen typically have no follow-up in the first three months post-deployment and no formal contact with their unit.

Jones, who suffers from mental injuries as the result of his combat deployment to Iraq in 2003-04, recounted being told that certain resources were "strictly for active-duty soldiers." He said he was made to feel that counseling services "were a favor" and that "we were taking up a resource meant for active-duty soldiers."

When combat trauma is exacerbated by this neglect and disregard, the sense of betrayal can set the stage for suicide.

We cannot continue to rely on our National Guard to take on the burdens of warfighting only to abandon them -- and their families -- when they are demobilized.

The men and women of the National Guard who have been fighting in Iraq know the terrible toll this war is taking on their hearts and minds. They shouldn't have to fight for the care that this nation promised them when they get home.

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