Fort Benning, Ga. is the U.S. Army's infantry training post. Infantry recruits travel there by plane or bus and are trained in all the usual military techniques like marching, shooting and hand-to-hand combat.
The legendary "jump school" - the factory of airborne paratroopers - is to be found there along with the equally mythic Ranger school, where some of America's finest troops are trained in small-unit operations and mountain warfare. On July 23, 2009, Fort Benning was also the site of Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Wimmer's suicide; the sergeant hanged himself from a tree across from Benning's practice range.
Military suicides have risen at an astounding rate in recent years. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Marine Corps saw a suicide rate of 24 in 100,000 in 2009, nearly double the corresponding rate in 2006. The Army has reported that, in August 2010, there were 13 potential suicides among active-duty soldiers; the nature of those deaths is still under investigation. There were 12 reported suicides in July.
These numbers may not seem immediately staggering, but the Department of Defense has confirmed that these suicide rates are higher than can be reasonably expected based on the status quo. Why, then, are soldiers and Marines and sailors killing themselves at such a rate?
There are many factors, but perhaps the most compelling is the extremely high rate of deployment with which current soldiers contend. Five deployments - that is, five tours in a combat zone - aren't unusual in our all-volunteer military for a typical term of service.
The psychological effects of such intense and protracted deployments are immediately noticeable. These are men and women who routinely find themselves under fire and in constant danger of ambush and roadside bombs. They watch their friends die and willingly carry the scars of that experience, and they kill people who, should they have met them in regular life, they might have quite gotten along with.
And then, they come home. As Bob Herbert of The New York Times astutely notes, most of America thinks of the wars the same way we think about background noise: they're happening, they're not going away, they don't really affect us with any sort of immediacy. We might protest, we might say, "Oh please bring the soldiers home. Kthxbye." But really, it's difficult for the American public to really care about the wars. There is, after all, fantasy football to be played.
So soldiers, even the ones who say that nothing's wrong, come home bearing all the stresses of war to a public that doesn't want to hear about it. That's sort of understandable, really. Nobody really wants to know what people look like after a sniper round goes through their head or their Humvee gets turned into a pile of scrap by an improvised explosive device. Nevertheless, these soldiers need to talk to someone.
What can we do? Simply put, there are two options: either restart the draft, which would be political suicide for any politician but which would also bolster and relieve the current forces, or end the current engagements abroad and institute mandatory psychological screening and treatment for returning soldiers. Unfortunately, both of these options are unfeasible at the moment, and the suicide rates continue to climb.