This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Is Joint Base Lewis-McChord “on the brink,” as claimed in a Los Angeles Times article and headline Monday? (The brink of what is never spelled out, but it’s safe to assume that it’s not “on the brink of something good.”)
The Times cites an article that appeared a year ago in Stars and Stripes that described JBLM as “the most troubled base in the military.” That billing was based on the courts martial of a group of Stryker soldiers for murdering civilians in Afghanistan, a much-publicized – and disputed – complaint by Oregon National Guardsmen of second-class treatment at Madigan Army Medical Center, and increased steroid use among soldiers.
The Times article adds to the list by citing several suicides and crimes committed by soldiers who returned to the South Sound after deploying to war zones, including the tragic case in April of a combat medic being treated for depression and other conditions. He shot his wife and himself, and their 5-year-old son was later found dead in the family’s Spanaway home. (Read about that case here.)
The “base on the brink” description of JBLM came from a local veterans group that was not named in the Times article. The reporter says the group is Iraq Veterans Against the War – hardly an unbiased observer.
It’s true that the Army has been slow to recognize the mental health issues facing its soldiers, especially combat troops who have had multiple deployments. But it is starting to address those issues. At Madigan this year, it opened the $52 million “warrior transition” barracks that can accommodate more than 400 wounded or psychologically impaired soldiers and their families. And it’s gotten more aggressive about teaching soldiers to recognize the signs that may signal a colleague is contemplating suicide.
Anecdotally, however, some soldiers and families still say a stigma is attached to seeking help for mental health issues. There’s fear that it might derail a promising career – especially as the military appears poised to downsize with the war in Iraq ending and troop levels decreasing in Afghanistan. If only some soldiers will be kept, will seeking help be a factor in deciding who gets to stay in?
Still, the Times article paints an overly grim picture of a South Sound community in crisis, facing a “crime wave” caused by returning veterans who will begin burdening local service providers. In reality, veterans tend to be better citizens than civilians their own age who never served. And the region benefits from the military presence in payroll, jobs, and the positive contributions of many who leave the service and choose to remain here.
The problems at JBLM are ones shared by military installations in other parts of the country. They may be amplified here somewhat by the large number of soldiers who have had multiple combat deployments and by the presence of excellent medical facilities. But if JBLM is a base “on the brink,” it’s not alone.
Problems associated with the psychological effects of war must be addressed by the Army nationwide as its soldiers come home in increasing numbers.