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The war away from the battlefields

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(source: New York Times Editorial)

Suicide stalks the United States military as much as enemies do on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the latest grim data. Last year, 347 military personnel were killed in the two wars, while at least 381 warriors took their own lives. The double-edged tragedy was brought home in recent Congressional hearings that laid bare how much must be done to reach and comfort battle-weary soldiers near the edge of their resources.

Care and prevention programs have been upgraded as the suicide toll has risen across the two wars, with suicide attempts increasing sixfold in the Army, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But currently tens of thousands of reservists return home from battle and fall through the cracks of programs supposedly mandating psychological and physical examinations within 90 days, concerned lawmakers are warning.

Legislation to repair this damage for members of the Army’s Individual Ready Reserve — a category that does not enjoy the unit-based care of other reservists — is again on the Congressional agenda. As vital as this is, the measure was approved by both houses last year but then was struck in a final conference for supposed budgetary reasons, according to one of the sponsors, Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey. A constituent, Sgt. Coleman Bean, was a unit-free reservist who did two tours in Iraq and committed suicide while on a waiting list for post-traumatic stress disorder care.

Considering the two wars were declared and waged with scant attention to their full costs, lawmakers add insult to injury by invoking budget concerns for the traumatic needs of actual warriors. The provision, approved again by the House in the defense authorization bill, deserves final approval in the Senate. An estimated 40,000 reservists miss the mandated check-ups, according to Representative Holt, who told CQ Today the bulk of military suicides may come from these overlooked ranks.