A seven-year-old second-grader attempted suicide while his father was serving yet another tour in Iraq. Seven years old. Seven. His mother was one of half a dozen military spouses I have spoken with about soldiers' kids who have attempted suicide during their fathers' deployments.
When I was seven, it was 1972, and there were 69,000 US troops in Vietnam. Men were still being drafted and deployed, but not my dad. So I was spared the circumstances that led a seven-year-old to try to kill himself.
Three-plus decades ago, parents were exempt from conscription because of overwhelming concern about the harmful effects of deployment on children. Today, roughly half of the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are parents, many of whom have served multiple tours. Repeat deployments stress soldiers and escalate the likelihood of psychological injuries that can last for a lifetime. There is a small, but rapidly growing, body of evidence suggesting that the same is true of their children.
The Associated Press reported that "After nearly eight years of war, soldiers are not the only ones experiencing mental anguish.... Last year, children of US troops sought outpatient mental health care 2 million times, double the number at the start of the Iraq war.... Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, inpatient visits among military children have increased 50 percent. ("War stresses military kids," July 12, 2009.)
The Veterans Administration's latest research on mental health issues of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that "the prevalence of new diagnoses in early 2008 had nearly doubled from four years prior in 2004." ("Study reveals sharp rise in diagnoses of disorders," Stars & Stripes, July 18, 2009.)
The same study revealed that approximately 35 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who use the Veterans Affairs health care system were diagnosed with a mental health problem. That figure dovetails perfectly with the results of a suicide prevention project in San Antonio which found that "nearly 35 percent of more than 200 children from local military families needed to be treated for mental health conditions." (Army Reserve Family Programs website, July 2009)
America's military kids are in crisis, presenting acute, debilitating symptoms of deployment-related stress, virtual mirrors of their parents who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current rates of mental health problems in OIF/OEF veterans and veterans' children (35 percent), and the trajectories of escalation from 2003/2004 to 2008 (50 percent), are identical. Further evidence of the direct, causal relationship between parental deployment and children's mental health is that when the US "surged" in Iraq, sending more than twenty thousand soldiers and Marines to stabilize the country, mental health hospitalizations of military kids "surged," too.
Should the White House decide to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, there must be a simultaneous stateside deployment of developmentally-appropriate mental health care providers to minister to the children left behind; children who have already carried too much of the weight of war.
Military kids whose parent have deployed are using mental health services at a rate three and a half times higher than the percentage of civilian children ages 4 to 17 who seek mental health services, according to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
If we were a nation at war, rather than a military at war, this would be an American problem. We are not, so it's a Pentagon problem. Thankfully, the Army is looking at the effects of multiple deployments on children, and taking steps to help. But at the Association of the US Army's annual meeting earlier this month, Col. Kris Peterson, a pediatrician at the Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence at Fort Lewis, Washington, admitted that there is a "very large gap" in providing care.
Mental health care resources are spread so thin that soldiers' kids wait months for psychiatric care, but there's no Department of Military Children's Affairs, no powerful lobbyists or highly paid advocates for military kids. They lack the social cachet and political currency of combat veterans, and there's just no way to spin a suicidal second-grader into a poster child for patriotism. Since there's not a Walter Reed to tend the invisible war wounds of Army kids, there is no potential lightning rod that could galvanize the people or embarrass the administration.
In the America I grew up in, we wouldn't need one.
That America didn't send soldier-parents to war over and over and over again. That America wanted to protect its children from the debilitating effects of a father's deployment. That America believed - and acted in concert with the belief - that the family unit should not, could not, would not withstand the burden of having a father in harm's way for a year, much less year after year after year. That America would have wept at the thought of a suicidal seven-year-old, and brought the father home immediately.
In this America, a seven-year-old second-grader attempted suicide while his father was serving yet another tour in Iraq. Seven years old. Seven.