Nobody argues the point anymore of whether the military in general, and the Army in particular, must move aggressively to deal with the rising tide of psychological issues and after-effects plaguing America's soldiers.
Perhaps the benchmark statistic that best defines the situation is the number of active-duty Army suicides: 115 in 2007, at least 133 in 2008 (with another seven still under investigation), and 64 suspected or confirmed in the first four months of 2009. That pace could escalate this year's total to nearly 200.
Underneath those alarming numbers, soldiers by the thousands are returning from overseas deployments with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or TBIs (traumatic brain injuries). The reported totals — PTSD cases in the Army rose from 1,632 in 2003 to 6,876 in 2006 and 10,049 in 2007 — suggest two things: The trouble is worsening, but more troops appear willing to let superiors know they need treatment.
Some Army installations have been more proactive in tackling the mental-health crisis. Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where 11 suicides occurred in the first five months of this year, and our own Fort Carson have conducted special "stand-down" procedures, forcing all of their personnel to set aside regular duties and go through educational and awareness programs.
That's encouraging. But enough? Probably not.
Fort Carson has been extremely lucky during this difficult time to have had Maj. Gen. Mark Graham as its commanding officer. Having lost a son to suicide, and another to a combat death, he understood better than any high-ranking officer the dilemma for soldiers who have feared the stigma of admitting mental problems. Repeatedly in the past two years here, including the Independent's town-hall meetings Graham has emphasized that the PTSD numbers are worse than military estimates. He also wants the Army to care for every affected soldier — and he doesn't tolerate a culture in which victims might be afraid to get help.
Because of his own circumstances, Graham has practically become a national spokesman for the Army. He's always willing to talk to major TV networks and newspapers about problems that the military ignored or suppressed for so long. His admirable outlook and refreshing candor have provided a great example.
Trouble is, Graham's days are numbered at Fort Carson. He's leaving in August to become a deputy chief of staff for the Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. And with so many newcomers being assigned here, part of life in the military, you have to wonder about continuity. Who will make sure the military maintains the same focus?
Mark Graham could do that.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates — or perhaps even President Barack Obama — should revise the 54-year-old Graham's next assignment. He should go straight to the Pentagon, appointed to a new position in charge of a military-wide effort to concentrate on mental health. We have special "czars" overseeing everything from terrorism to info-tech, energy and health reform. This crisis — and yes, it's worthy of being called a crisis — warrants having someone overseeing it.
The first step was posing this idea to a couple Colorado legislators serving on the Senate and House Armed Services committees, Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Doug Lamborn.
Lamborn's response: "Gen. Mark Graham and his wife Carol have suffered the unbearable loss of two sons ... one to combat, and one to suicide. At a time when the Army is dealing with the highest suicide rates on record, I can think of no better person than Gen. Graham to head up an Army-wide campaign to address the problem.
"While at Fort Carson, Gen. Graham has been widely credited with turning the base into a 'suicide-prevention laboratory.' Our country is greatly indebted to him for his compassion and heartfelt leadership on this issue. I support the Colorado Springs Independent's inspired idea to have Gen. Graham serve as an Army 'czar' in the area of suicide prevention."
Udall didn't mention the czar idea, but sent this statement: "Maj. Gen. Graham has made the care of our men and women in uniform a top priority, especially when it comes to their mental health. He had helped us all understand that the wounds we cannot see can be just as debilitating and even life-threatening as the wounds we can see. Gen. Graham has been a powerful presence at Fort Carson, a strong and thoughtful leader. ... Fort Carson has become a better place for soldiers under his watch."
Strong words from both. Now let's see what happens next.