- - Friday, April 4, 2014

The nation’s attention-deficit disorder is best measured by the media’s swiftness in pivoting from shocked headlines back to the usual news feed.

On Wednesday, it was more than March Madness unleashed at Fort Hood, Texas, an unwelcome reminder that there is an unhealed wound in today’s military. We swiftly learned that the troubled Iraq war veteran was a former Puerto Rican National Guardsman being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

President Obama paused to offer customary condolences: “We’re heartbroken something like this might have happened again.” Then he returned to his fundraising activities.

The entire military family greatly appreciates the sympathies of the president as our commander in chief. However, his words of condolence might have considerably more weight had his secretary of defense not recently announced that the Army is again being slashed — now to levels not seen since World War II.


This is the very same Army that has been deployed to hell and back ever since Sept. 11, 2001. Unlike previous conflicts, the war against terrorism has affected only our troops and their families. The nation as a whole remained at peace, summoned to return en masse to the shopping malls and college campuses rather than offer their blood, toil, tears and sweat.

All the real sacrifice has been outsourced to our all-volunteer force, highly professional and spectacularly successful in high-tech combat. (What about in handling insurgencies and guerrilla conflicts? Well, not so much.)

What happens when the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine goes to war while his nation does not? You can begin with uneven sacrifice. The current numbers suggest that only one-half of 1 percent of us serve in uniform, while more than 99 percent of the American population does not.

As a result, the war against terrorism has always been accompanied by a shortage of manpower, because the all-volunteer force was becoming an increasingly rare and expensive organization. Sending our troops to the combat zones is now estimated to cost the American taxpayer $1 million per serviceman per year. Even for a nation seduced into accepting trillion-dollar deficits, this still amounts to real money.

As the thrill of shock and awe in Afghanistan and Iraq morphed into gritty insurgencies in both countries, ever-expanding operational requirements meant deploying and redeploying the all-volunteer force. When troop surges were required, the service member and his family were thus forced to “embrace the suck” — putting life and limb at risk again and again.

Because there was no practical way to enlarge the all-volunteer force, those repeated deployments added up, too. According to a recent RAND Corp. study, today the average American serviceman is on his third or fourth combat tour.

Not only is the law of averages still in effect, there is also new evidence about the long-lasting effects of combat. Little-noticed when published in 2010, “Combat Trauma: A Personal Look at Long-Term Consequences” argued that PTSD is like radiation: The greater your exposure to combat trauma, the more likely you are to experience PTSD.

What made matters even worse was that the book was written by veterans of Vietnam, not Afghanistan or Iraq. Each had fought PTSD for a generation after having been sent into combat for only a single year, not three or four. The implications and long-term effects on today’s combat veterans? It’s hard to say and impossible to predict.

This brings us back to murder-suicide. While the tragic shooting of 13 Fort Hood soldiers in 2009 was an aberration, lesser incidents of soldier-suicide have become a shockingly common problem. In 2012, the Army lost more soldiers to suicide — 325 — than to their Taliban adversaries.

Upon reaching that grim milestone, the Army redoubled its already heroic efforts to identify and treat potential soldier-suicides. In 2013, the Army personnel chief announced that a “mere” 301 soldiers had taken their own lives: ” while not a declaration of success, it could indicate resiliency efforts are starting to take hold across the force. Ultimately, the Army acknowledges there is more work to do.”

Maybe it does, but what about the other 99 percent of us? Watching the media mavens and congressmen rushing toward the spotlight, you could easily conclude that the problem at Fort Hood could be solved just by shepherding problem soldiers into mental health counseling, or maybe granting some soldiers the right to carry concealed weapons. How, though, do we distinguish one category from the other?

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