Mental Health In The Military
Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you are in crisis, contact The Military Crisis Line. It is a free, confidential resource for all servicemembers: Dial 988, then press 1.
Mental health is extremely important to all of us at Kral Military Defense. We represent servicemembers through some of the hardest times of their lives. Because we practice exclusively within the military justice system, every single one of our clients has taken the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. That promise can involve exposure to trauma in combat and – oftentimes unexpectedly – in garrison.
More veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have died from suicide than died in combat.
We routinely handle cases involving PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). We understand the experiences our clients have gone through. We listen, we advocate, and we direct our clients to the resources applicable to their situation.
Mental Health and The Military
War and trauma have long been associated with one another. Throughout American history, the trauma of war has been referred to as “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” and “combat neurosis.” Returning combat veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war have been repeatedly depicted in movies, television, books, radio, and magazines. Oftentimes, those portrayals are impacted by the political and social movements at the time.
Steph once had a moving encounter with a Vietnam Veteran who spotted her in uniform. He told her the story of his return from Vietnam through Fort Lewis. When he was on the bus leaving the base, protesters were spitting and throwing trash at the bus.
That is a vast difference from the shift during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where politicians, media figures, and the general public referred to all servicemembers as “heroes” and made it a point to “thank the troops”.
In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III as a result of studies of Vietnam War Veterans, among others. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the veteran suicide rate has skyrocketed. Mental health has come to the forefront of issues affecting active duty servicemembers and veterans.
The suicide rate for people who have never deployed is 48% percent higher than those who have. While PTSD from combat or deployment-related experiences is a pressing issue that deserves attention from military and government leadership, the data shows military members experience mental health challenges beyond PTSD and combat.
Mental Health in Today’s Military
Senior leaders are saying mental health is a top priority for them. For example, in 2022, USAF Gen Mike Minihan, AMC/CC, posted his mental health appointment to Twitter:
US Army General Ernest Litynski was concerned how getting help and discussing his own struggles with mental health would impact his career. He sought mental health help after his wife gave him an ultimatum because his angry overreactions and withdrawal were damaging his family. General Litynski has since shared his own struggles openly and is trying to remove the stigma of mental health treatment for military members.
Many believe that leaders fail to implement policy change where it matters – at the level of the individual servicemember.
In the wake of a series of suicides, aboard the USS George Washington between 2021-2022 there was an investigation. Leadership admitted that mistakes were made in addressing the situation. However, the investigation absolved leadership by saying that, while shipboard life is historically challenging, the suicides were unrelated to the “general stress” associated with the conditions on the ship.
Retaliation for Getting Mental Health Treatment
It is something we hear so often: “If I go to mental health, I’m going to get kicked out.”
There are a lot of reasons why someone may be scared of mental health treatment: PRP, security clearance, a specialized billet, or becoming undeployable. The reality is that even the most junior enlisted feel the pressure to avoid going to mental health, despite what their senior leaders are saying.
The most important thing is this: If you need mental health treatment, get it.
Unfortunately, there are still people who will retaliate. KMD represented a Sailor who was retaliated against on the USS Abraham Lincoln and aggressively fought for justice in his case.
“‘There is a disconnect between the general officers and senior enlisted leaders who say they want to end the stigma of mental health treatment and the first-level commanding officers who don’t have the time or willingness to put those words into action,’ said [Stephanie] Kral, a former Air Force attorney.”
Particularly in the Navy, commanding officers and mental health providers are very quick to move to administratively separate junior Sailors after less than 30 minutes of mental health treatment, calling it a “chronic condition” that is “incompatible with continued military service.” This is referred to as a separation for a “Condition Not Amounting to a Disability.”
As Steph said, “It is easier than taking the time to find the right resources than allow them to go through a simple program of therapy and treatment for something that is a temporary mental health issue.” The Navy does not track how many Sailors are separated under the “CND” provision, hampering attempts from advocates to hold the Navy accountable.
All too often, we hear similar concerns from clients. The mental health experience of the individual Sailor, Marine, Soldier, Airman, Guardian, or Coastguardsman is not what senior leaders are touting.
KMD has been advocating for reform to the way the military handles mental health, through bringing these kinds of stories to light, providing lower-cost assistance to junior servicemembers, and aggressively pushing back on behalf of our clients.
Mental Health Resources for Active Duty Military and Veterans
Military OneSource: https://www.militaryonesource.mil/
The VA now offers free crisis mental healthcare to all veterans, regardless whether they are enrolled in VA healthcare: https://www.va.gov/
Wounded Warrior Project: https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Veterans-Active-Duty
If you are in crisis, contact The Military Crisis Line . It is a free, confidential resource for all servicemembers: Dial 988, then press 1.