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Obama will touch on Tucson and the economy in his SOTU tonight, and he’ll reassure us that we are beating terrorism. He will talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly the latter, affirming our success in driving back the Taliban and that we are on track to begin troop withdrawal in July, as planned.
He’ll likely have a line or two about the welfare of the troops, how we must support them when they come home and rebuild the morale shattered by broken withdrawal deadline after broken withdrawal deadline (he probably won’t use those words, exactly).
However, he won’t tell the whole story about how the troops are faring.
Congress.org reports that for the second year in a row, the military has lost more U.S. troops to suicide than it has to combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The services counted 434 suicides by active duty personnel in 2010, up from 381 in 2009. These figures bely the truth. None of the services report suicides uniformly. For instance, the Army includes stats on certain reservists who kill themselves when they are not on active duty, but the National Guard only includes the number of service members on active duty. The Defense Department does not count suicides by veterans who have left the services completely. And the Department of Veterans Affairs keeps track of veteran suicides only if the individual was enrolled in the VA health care system. Three-quarters of veterans are not enrolled in the program.
We’ve known for some time that military personnel who’ve served in both quagmires are particularly prone to PTSD and other psychological disorders associated with multiple deployments, high stress, heavy carnage and a seemingly impossible mission.
A report by Chris Kirkham for the Huffington Post today also reveals that American troops suffer hardships not even associated with combat.
Kirkham focuses on Fort Sill in Lawton Oklahoma, a typical Army base, from the barracks to the mess hall to the “military loan” brokers and other predatory lenders encircling Fort Sill’s gates. Many of the troops stationed there and at other bases across the country, Kirkham writes, are suckered into high-interest, easy credit loans by brokers “catering” to military personnel but who essentially screw them out of their paychecks and intimidate them into making payments they can’t afford.
The Department of Defense first reported this problem in 2006 when it launched an investigation into predatory lenders and their tendency to “gouge our service people.” It has become such an epidemic that Holly Petraeus, the general’s wife, will head a newly created division of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency focused entirely on eliminating such practices directed towards the military.
This should have been fixed four years ago, but Kirkham’s piece, in which one PFC says, “I was actually debt-free my entire life, until I joined the Army,” clearly points out that it is not.
The president will avoid these hard truths in his speech tonight. No one has a clear solution, but as we plan our withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq moves towards greater sustainability, and we hopefully, finally end these endless wars, we must keep in mind that the troops might not be safe even after they come home.
Michelle Fitzsimmons is an editorial fellow at Salon.com.More Michelle Fitzsimmons.