The Suicidal Soldiers of Fort Campbell: In Memoriam, Post-Memorial Day

Now that the television rituals are over -- the theatrically somber voices of the network anchormen; the poetically-framed, stock-footage shots of Arlington Cemetary, and the cracked-bugle versions of "Taps;" maybe a cutesy interview with the Oldest Surviving Veteran of some forgotten battle -- the American media, having done its faux-patriotic duty, can forget Memorial Day and scurry back to its infantile obsession with the inside-baseball minutiae of Washington politics.

And what of the freshly-dead soldiers, the soon-to-be-dead soldiers, and all those warriors for whom IED stands not for "improvised explosive devices" but "internal emotional death?"

For them, that one Memorial Day is over, and the remaining days of the year -- those 364 consecutive Amnesia Days -- are just beginning.

It's truly amazing how little attention has been paid to the epidemic of suicide at Fort Campbell, Kentucky -- home to the legendary 101st Airborne Division. Why isn't it a front-page story when an entire military base shuts down for three days in a worthy -- if sadly belated -- attempt to cope with "at least" eleven suicides? Why do the moronic ramblings of Liz Cheney draw so much more attention than the fact that our soldiers are now murdering themselves at a faster clip than our enemies do?

Year after year, our military sets new records for self-destruction. In the Army alone, there were 115 in 2007, and 133 in 2008, We've already had 64 confirmed Army suicides this year, so we're sure to shatter the old mark. And of course these numbers only begin to hint at the problem: they don't include the slower, long-term suicides by alcohol and drugs, by madness and homelessness, or the quasi-zombie wrecks who sit on porches across America staring dully out into the middle distance.

So the brass at Fort Campbell shuts the base down for three days, in "an effort to let the soldiers know that the command cares," according to spokesperson Kelly Tyler; "to make sure people know we want them to keep living." Ms. Tyler goes on -- with haunting and unintended irony -- to say: "It is such an unusual event to look them in the eye and say their life matters."

Yes. It's a highly unusual event. And 's a horribly -- and grotesquely -- insufficient one.

"Soldiers often refuse to admit they are having problems because of the culture of the military," she said. True enough. And this was the extra, hidden evil of Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" edict -- it reinforced the very culture of secrecy, denial and shame that was already at soul-crushing levels in the military. And not just around the issue of sexual preference: how many other passions, fears, and forbidden thoughts are soldiers forced to deny, minute to minute, year after year, in order to survive... until they snap?

And when that final snap comes, they don't only destroy themselves: although it was a short-lived story in the American media, five military families are still mourning the soldiers killed by the decidedly un-friendly fire of Army Sergeant John Russell. In a cheap but potent irony, Sgt. Russell -- tellingly described by his father as "a real John Wayne type" -- was a communications specialist who opened fire on his brothers at a stress clinic.

War is, inevitably hell, but there is nothing inevitable about this surge in military suicide. Even the vice chief-of-staff of the Army, Peter Chiarelli, has cited long deployments in Iraq -- and the sadistic Bush/Cheney "stop-loss" policy -- as a huge factor in this suicide spike. And Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has laid it on the table with typical candor: "It's tragic. I mean, It's deeply disturbing, but I don't think folks who have been in the [war] theater are surprised," He says: "One in four folks come back [from war] with some kind of stress-related mental health injury. But these folks are going back over and over again," he said. "Each time you're deployed, you're more likely to have a mental health disability."

Sgt. Russell -- the John Wayne type -- had been in Iraq for four rotations, a total of 54 months, in a hell we created for absolutely no good reason -- a hell we are dismantling with amazing slowness -- a hell to which we continue to consign young people every day.

U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Arizona, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, says the military needs to reach out to military personnel who may be suffering from combat stress. "We simply cannot wait for our men and women serving in the military, or our nation's veterans transitioning back to civilian life, to come to us. We need to go to them," he said recently.

Yes, by all means: we need to go to them. But it doesn't seem like a priority to America's government or media.

After all, Memorial Day is over.