Today's essential reading from Thomas Donnelly, writing at The Wall Street Journal. A few excerpts:
"...Begin with suicides by servicemen and women, which have increased in recent years—but by dozens of deaths, not in the epidemic fashion that news coverage sometimes seems to suggest. That said, the 349 military suicides in 2012 did exceed the 295 deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The question is: why?
A major study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that factors such as substance abuse, depression, financial and relationship problems accounted for the rise in soldier suicides—in other words, the same factors that influence civilians to take their own lives. "The findings from this study," the authors concluded, "are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences, are directly associated with increased suicide risk."
Nor does the rate of military suicides differ significantly from suicides in the general population. Using data from 2009, another study by the U.S. Army and the National Institute of Mental Health calculated the military suicide rate at 18.5 per 100,000, just below the civilian rate of 18.8 per 100,000.
The recent debate about sexual assault in the military also reflects the notion that there is something fundamentally diseased about the institution itself. The New York Times has editorialized on "the military's entrenched culture of sexual violence." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) demands that the country replace the military chain of command with civilian legal processes in cases of sexual harassment and assault because the military is inadequate to deal with crimes of "dominance and violence and power." Ms. Gillibrand has been joined in her legislative effort by two leading libertarian Senate Republicans, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
Yet the numbers bandied about to show an epidemic of sexual violence in the U.S. military are questionable. In May, Capt. Lindsay Rodman, a judge advocate stationed at U.S. Marine Headquarters in Arlington, Va., reported on this page, for example, that the number of military sexual assaults frequently cited in Congress and elsewhere are based on a badly distorted interpretation of a Defense Department survey. In recent months the American public has often heard that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. But that statistic comes from an unscientific poll and refers to "unwanted sexual contact," including touching the buttocks or even attempted touching.
Sadly, there are agendas at work here. Ms. Gillibrand, like many liberals, harbors a deep suspicion of the military and those who run it. She is quick to accept a flawed survey as "proof" that the armed forces are filled with sexual predators who victimize thousands of young women each year. Unfortunately, scandals like those involving Air Force training instructors at Lackland AFB, Texas only reinforce those perceptions, and mask the distorted data. It's worth noting that Gillibrand, Mr. Cruz and Dr. Paul are among the majority of senators who have never served in the U.S. military; they have little understanding of the chain-of-command concept and the critical role played by commanders in the military justice system.
On the issue of PTSD, it's worth noting that the system has become clogged with thousands of claims that are dubious at best. For every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who has experienced the horrors of combat first-hand--and bear the mental scars of that ordeal--there are dozens of claims by rear-echelon types who claim they're suffering PTSD as a result of their military service.
In some cases, their trauma is valid; consider an Air Force intelligence specialist, serving at a DCGS site at home or abroad. Monitoring the feed from their UAV mission, they watch the convoy or patrol they're supporting come under attack and take casualties. Or the military trauma teams who work at places like the large USAF hospital at Bagram, Afghanistan. Many of the most badly-wounded wind up there; the struggle to save the lives of those soliders takes an enormous toll on combat surgeons, nurses and medics, miles from the front lines.
But in other instances, a PTSD claim becomes a way to earn a disability pension, pad existing benefits or get a break from future rotations. Concerns about military mental health and suicide rates demand that each case be carefully evaluated, and relatively few claims are rejected outright. Unfortunately, the bogus cases not only place a burden on taxpayers, they often delay processing of claims from servicemembers who are suffering from PTSD and other disabilities. Perhaps the most blatant example of a "questionable" PTSD claim was the infamous case of Air Force Major Jill Metzger, who claimed she was "kidnapped" during a deployment to Kyrgyzstan in 2006.
Major Metzger's wild story had more holes that a block of Swiss cheese, but she was quickly awarded a 100% disability pension (based on PTSD) and placed on the temporarily retired list. Despite her "disability," Metzger was able to compete in several marathons and she later returned to active duty. At last report, she was stationed at a base in northern California and up for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
Going after the cheaters and gold-bricks would speed the processing of benefits for service members who suffered mental injuries and are in need of assistance. Sadly, we don't know how many phony PTSD claims are in the military medical retirement and VA systems right now, but the number is conservatively estimated at "several thousand."
Now there's an "epidemic" worth investigating.