Two of the most serious forms of violence — murder and suicide — are happening too often on America's military bases.
On June 29 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the fabled 82nd Airborne Division, officials confirmed a soldier shot and killed his battalion commander and was then fatally wounded. A third soldier suffered lesser wounds.
Military commanders are searching for answers. Some observers say the explanation for the violence is straightforward: After a decade of continuous war and repeated deployments, the military is beginning to come apart at the seams.
The Fort Bragg incident appears to involve a disgruntled troop seeking revenge on his boss. Other recent incidents are harder to understand:
- On April 27, 2011 at Kabul airport, an Afghan military trainee went on a shooting rampage and killed nine people, eight members of the Air Force plus a retired Army officer working as a contractor.
- On November 5, 2009, an Army major and psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, home of the First Cavalry Division, used handguns to kill 13 soldiers and wound 29 others.
Some military leaders cast these incidents as part of the ongoing U.S. conflict with al-Qaeda. One of the men killed at Kabul was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, usually given for valor in war.
But this isn't war. Investigations have found no evidence that these murders were inspired by, or planned by, al-Qaeda.
They were crimes.
They were crimes committed by men under stress because of pressures on a military force that is now strained almost to the limit.
Even more than violent crime, suicide is rampant in the military. As reported by Robert Burns in the Huffington Post on June 7, the U.S. military experienced 154 suicides in the first 155 days of this year and the figure doesn't include members of the National Guard and Reserve. At this rate of nearly one a day, self-inflicted deaths are more than double the number of combat fatalities in Afghanistan. Military suicide rates are also higher than those in the civilian world, even though the military is younger and healthier than the overall population.
Military leaders privately acknowledge they don't know how to bring down these numbers. Post-traumatic stress and deployment-related strains on families are seen as causes.
The Air Force outfit responsible for nuclear weapons, Global Strike Command, or AFGSC, is searching for answers about the suicide rate, especially at isolated bases like those in Malmstrom, Montana and Minot, North Dakota. In a June 26 telephone interview, Lt. Col. Ron Watrous, public affairs director for AFGSC, acknowledged a "concern about suicide" and told of morale-boosting efforts aimed at increasing the "resiliency" of airmen.
One such effort sponsored by AFGSC, which did not use government funds, involved a Nepalese mountaineer, or sherpa, climbing Mount Everest on May 19 with a special flag and a ceremonial coin that are now being shown to airmen throughout AFGSC's five U.S. bases.
Critics say a troubled airman fighting family issues and working in darkness and cold at Minot isn't going to undergo a change of view on life simply because mountaineers, a flag and a coin are now making a morale tour of bases. Officials acknowledge that when they're urging troops to be "resilient" they're actually telling them not to be suicidal. It's an unscientific approach and its impact is unknowable.
My view is that the only way to understand the murders and suicides plaguing the military today is to understand what the war in Afghanistan is doing to our troops. Incredibly, however, we're in the middle of a heated presidential election debate in which the war is never mentioned. "That's because most people in America just aren't interested," an airman told me recently.
About me: I write books, magazine articles and newspaper columns about the U.S. armed forces in my office at home in Oakton. I'm an Air Force veteran. My latest book is "Mission to Berlin," about B-17 Flying Fortress crews in World War II.