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Apathy Towards Mental Illness in the US Military

On March 11, 2012, US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left his military base in Southern Afghanistan at three in the morning, walked a mile to a rural village and went door to door, methodically stabbing and shooting sixteen Afghani civilians. Among the dead were nine children, four men and three women. After his spontaneous murderous rampage, Bales walked back to his base, raised his arms in surrender and confessed immediately to his horrendous crime. He is currently residing in a high security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas under solitary confinement.

Described as a ‘really, really nice guy’ by his family friend Edith Bouvette, one cannot but ask the question, why would a solider randomly commit such a heinous act?

Bales first enlisted in the army a few months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, out of a sense of duty and patriotism for his country. Over the past ten years, he has been deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time he lost part of his foot and sustained a concussive head injury. Before his last deployment to Afghanistan, he was denied a promotion to Sergeant First Class and was experiencing financial struggles. Most importantly, however, he explicitly stated that he did not want to be redeployed to the Middle East. The night before his unprovoked, brutal attack on the sixteen innocent Afghani civilians, he witnessed a fellow solider lose his leg in a land mine explosion and was  seen drinking on the base.

Clearly Robert Bales was a mentally disturbed man; most would be after four consecutive military deployments to the Middle East. However, once these circumstances are considered, our main question is no longer why he would commit such an atrocious crime, but rather why the US military would force a soldier to serve a forth deployment, especially after having sustained a brain injury and explicitly requesting not to return to the Middle East.

The effect of multiple deployments on the mental health of soldiers is certainly not a new issue. The Medical Surveillance Monthly Report found that ‘larger percentages of deployers were diagnosed with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and anxiety related disorders after second and third deployments than first deployments.’ The Joint Mental Health Advisory Team found that ‘soldiers in their third of forth deployment report significantly more psychological problems than soldiers on their first or second deployments.’ After serving in the Middle East, 10-20% of soldiers suffer from PTSD. These facts are not disputed by the US military, but rather accepted as consequences of warfare. However, the question must be raised: to what extent is the army (US military?) liable for the mental health status of its soldiers?

Robert Bales is a glaring example of this issue. The army should be responsible for the mental health status of its soldiers not only for the sake of the soldiers themselves, but also for the sake of the innocent people whose lives are put at risk by having mentally unstable people serving, fully armed, in the military. The mental health issues Robert Bales may have been experiencing are absolutely no excuse for his horrendous crime. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a defense for committing multiple murders of the innocent civilians whom you are supposed to be protecting. However, someone should be held accountable for creating the circumstances under which this horrendous act was committed.

Current US soldiers serve in combat longer than almost any other US soldiers in the  past. This long and repeated exposure to combat is what makes the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan unique. Multiple deployments make soldiers three times more likely to develop PTSD and major depression, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Only 53% of those who met the criteria for PTSD or major depression actually sought help and 57% of those who experienced a traumatic brain injury had not been evaluated by a physician.

These statistics exemplify the gross level of apathy by the US military towards soldiers desperately in need of mental health services. The military fails to provide these necessary services and then continues to deploy mentally unstable soldiers into intense combat situations. Robert Bales’s actions were horrendous and he deserves to be held accountable. However, we must look beyond the individual in this particular circumstance and evaluate the wider issue. Having mentally unstable soldiers serving third or forth deployments is morally repugnant and the US military should be held responsible for the desperate acts of desperate soldiers.


– Joey Shea

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One comment

  1. I absolutely love your writing style! Also, this is such an important issue that, as the daughter of a former military officer, does not get enough attention in the media. Thank you for elucidating so well on this issue!

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