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Gromotka: The military and mental health

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | APRIL 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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Ivan Lopez opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, at around 4 p.m. on April 2. Using his private handgun, he killed three soldiers and wounded another 16. While — at the time of this writing — the motive remains unknown, Lopez was undergoing assessment for PTSD, and he had recently vented on Facebook about a number of issues, including the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., criticizing Adam Lanza’s ability to so easily acquire a weapon while suffering from mental instability. It was the second shooting at Fort Hood in four years.

At the risk of capitalizing off of tragedy, I pose a question: If members of our armed forces — some of the toughest, most hardened individuals our country produces — can suffer from and act negatively because of mental illness, isn’t it time to remove the stigma surrounding the matter and actively seek to treat those affected?

Of course, I mean “toughest” in the sense that — considering the pain, pay, and stress — serving is one of the most difficult jobs to hold. The realization hit me, inappropriately enough, while I was playing a violent video game and discussing the shooting with a friend. As my character was riddled by enemy gunfire and explosives, I realized that handing people guns and sending them to a dangerous place to shoot at and be shot at by other people with guns is one of the cruelest tasks a government could possibly assign. A small sliver of empathy makes it clear. It’s evil. It’s awful. It’s hell.

Does our government do enough for vets and servicemen and servicewomen? Certainly not. The existence of charities that serve to assist members of our armed forces makes that clear. A few weeks ago, I ran a workout with the University’s Tough Mudder Corps, a group that raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project by participating in mud races. The goal is motivating enough. The fact that groups such as the project exist to assist wounded vets helps to restore faith in humanity. But it’s assistance the government, responsible for sending young men and women into the mouth of the beast called “war,” should provide.

As more reports file in, and the situation becomes clearer, we’ve learned that Lopez didn’t serve in direct combat, at least not in Iraq. Still, he suffered from anxiety and depression-related issues, and those negative urges — ignited, perhaps, by a refusal to let Lopez fill out temporary leave papers — were enough to push him over the edge … whatever edge he had shaped in his own mind. It makes the situation all the more confusing and all the more concerning. It seems anyone can struggle with mental-health issues. It’s a real sickness. It affects lives in a number of ways. Sometimes it involves a gun.

This column is my desperate attempt to draw attention to a number of issues, but they’re all related, and they’re all serious. The United States — proud wielder of one of the world’s strongest military forces — should look after its troops, individuals who fight so others don’t have to. But you don’t have to go to war to suffer. It’s high time we shed the stigma and apathy surrounding the treatment of mental illness. We shouldn’t need an influx of mental health-linked tragedies to understand why.


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