Hartford Courant Story Raises Questions, Only Research Data Will Provide Answers
> 5/15/2006 1:25:06 PM

Yesterday, the Hartford Courant published a lengthy, extensively reported story entitled "Mentally Unfit, Forced to Fight." The piece has stirred some media attention, due mainly to its no-holds-barred attack on the Army's handling of soldiers who struggle with mental health issues.

The accuracy of the content of the Courant story is not up for debate. Using the Freedom of Information Act, writers Chedekel and Kauffman uncovered statistics and information that they used to paint an unfavorable picture of the Army and the Department of Defense.

While the facts themselves are certainly accurate (we can only assume they've been adequately fact checked by editors at the Courant), the tone of the article is one of sensationalism and fear mongering. The type of conflict that we are fighting in Iraq is, in many ways, completely uncharted territory. New technologies, new enemies, new strategies--many factors combine to make this engagement different from any in history. Add to this, the fact that the U.S. operates with a completely volunteer force, and we have a situation ripe with opportunity for the very missteps that the Courant highlights.

One of the paper's main charges is certainly spot on: the enlistement screening process is highly ineffective. One question regarding mental health just will not cut it, ever. By adding specifically designed fitness for duty surveys and thorough psychological testing, the enlistee would provide enough information to create a basic mental health profile. Using that as a starting point, the Department of Defense could easily track the progression of the soldier over the course of their service with repeat testing and a prospective scientific analysis which can benchmark what makes a good soldier and what profiles make a poor performing soldier. As the American military evolves, we need to collect better data on the very soldiers that are defending our country. The expense to implement these data collection initiatives is small by comparison to the yield in better performance and information.

As we know very little about the way that today's modern warfare effects the soldiers mental health, we could utilize this newly collected data to better understand how certain personality types will react and perform in the line of fire.

If we are to continue using a volunteer force, we really have no option but to use folks with known mental health issues, the implication that this is wrong is one of the main problems with the Courant piece. Indeed, someone with depression, anxiety or even PTSD can be a successful and productive soldier (some studies have shown that removing PTSD afflicted soldiers from the front line can be even more damaging then leaving them there).

The challange that we need to address is that every soldier should be extensively screened to develop a profile that can be followed through the enlistment period. This data will create a wealth of information about what mental health issues are created in the military and what mental health issues are bought into the military and what happens as a result of the stress of combat duty. What the Courant has shown us is that there is a lot that we still need to learn.

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