Read More: Peter Chiarelli continues his siege on suicides
Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli spent the final act of his career combating suicides in the Army.
Now, he says, it’s time to stop “scapegoating” military leaders when troops take their own lives and, instead, focus on preventing suicides among all Americans.
After 11 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, every branch of the military — especially the Army — has been under scrutiny over the increase in suicides. A recent Time magazine cover illustrated the problem with a powerful story headlined “One a Day,” referring to recent Army statistics showing that an active-duty soldier commits suicide nearly every day.
In fact, more troops committed suicide last year than were killed in combat in Afghanistan.
While these suicides are tragic, Chiarelli told POLITICO, the criticism being heaped on the nation’s military is being overshadowed by an even more troubling number: the estimated 35,000 Americans who take their own lives each year.
“We’re beating up the services who’ve been fighting with an all-volunteer service,” said the former Army vice chief of staff. “We’ve decided that we’re going to scope in on 200 suicides. We ought to quit focusing on this and beating up on the services. What are we doing for the other 34,800?”
“The services are doing just about everything humanly possible,” he said. “In many ways, they are the scapegoat for our failure to handle this problem [nationwide].”
If Chiarelli sounds angry, he is.
“You want to get me upset? This gets me upset,” he said.
In uniform, Chiarelli worked to remove the stigma of seeking help for post-traumatic stress — he doesn’t call it a “disorder.” In retirement, he’s still fighting for the troops by trying to find an answer to one of the most misunderstood problems facing many soldiers on the battlefield: traumatic brain injury.
“I feel that this entire field is handicapped by a lack of research,” he said.
Chiarelli is now CEO of One Mind for Research, a Seattle-based company that promotes cutting-edge research on the effects of traumatic brain injury.
“I predict — and this is me, and my predictions aren’t worth a damn — but I predict that traumatic brain injury is going to be the Agent Orange of this conflict,” Chiarelli said, referring to the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War to destroy the enemy’s tree cover.
It took the Department of Veterans Affairs more than 40 years to fully comprehend — and acknowledge — the effects of the chemicals that may have sickened more than 200,000 troops. The VA just added Agent Orange to its list of “presumed” illnesses, opening a floodgate of new claims and adding to the department’s backlog.
“It’s so absolutely critical that we stop noodling this and that we start taking a little bit of risk, taking the best science out there and put some money into it so we get to a point where we can try to figure this out,” he said.
One Mind for Research just raised $50 million to study traumatic brain injury, but the money comes with strings: All of it must be spent on one study.
Part of the problem, Chiarelli said, is that research money is spread so thin that it’s often difficult to get meaningful findings specifically on traumatic brain injuries. “That’s how research is set up in this country — a little bit goes to everybody,” he said.
His suggestion: “Do the same thing they did for AIDS.”
“If the government really cared about our vets, they would go back and dust off what they did for AIDS and create a similar kind of environment,” Chiarelli said. “The AIDS model worked.”
Brain injuries are so complex, he said, that they require some real research to understand their effects. With roadside bombs as the No. 1 killer of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the fact that many troops played contact sports before joining the military, it becomes even more difficult to know just how to detect and treat them.
“We are so far behind in understanding the brain,” Chiarelli said. “We can’t take an X-ray or put on a blood pressure cuff. Traumatic brain injury can be a very subtle thing.”
Often called the war’s invisible wounds, the injuries are so subtle that it’s hard to see that there’s something wrong with many of its victims. “But there is something different about them,” Chiarelli said.
There are other factors involved in suicide, of course, including unemployment, marital problems, drug and alcohol abuse and access to guns.
“I wish we at least had the ability in the service — and this is Pete Chiarelli talking, not the service — if you have somebody who indicates suicidal tendencies, at least be able to look at that person and say, ‘Do you have a gun?’” he said. “This is not an assault on Second Amendment rights. Suicide is a compulsive act, and many times, it’s combined with drug and alcohol use.”
All the national talk of suicides in the military does help highlight the problem, Chiarelli said, but it also feeds into a narrative that has become prevalent in the country — that of the “crazy vet.”
“That worries me more than anything,” he said.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81413.html#ixzz272SPPT2G