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Programs for Troubled Vets Don’t Work, So How about Ending War?


There is a shamefully broad gap between the lip service that we Americans give soldiers—or "heroes," as we love to call them—and our actual treatment of them.

$125 million "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness" and other mental-health programs for U.S. troops have not been shown to work.

Case in point: In 2009 the U.S. Army, with great fanfare, initiated a $125 million program for improving the mental health of its troops and their families. The so-called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program was designed with the help of prominent members of the American Psychological Association, notably Martin Seligman, former head of the APA.

The Defense Department has touted Soldier Fitness as a great success, but it offers little beyond anecdotes and testimonials to back up that assertion, according to a new study by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The study, commissioned by the Defense Department, examined Soldier Fitness and other counseling programs instituted by the U.S. armed forces and found scant evidence of benefits.

"While DOD has adopted these numerous resilience and prevention programs, gaps exist in the evidence supporting their effectiveness," states an Institute of Medicine press release. "For example, based on internal research data that show only very small effects, DOD concluded that Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness--a broadly implemented program intended to foster resilience and enhance performance--is effective, despite external evaluations that dispute that conclusion." (See also coverage of the new Institute of Medicine report by the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NBC News and TIME.)

As I reported three years ago, some psychologists have sharply criticized the APA's involvement in Soldier Fitness. Three critics raised the larger question of whether psychologists should serve as enablers of unethical U.S. policies. (One of this trio, Roy Eidelson, has recently knocked the American Psychological Association for failing to censure members involved in alleged torture of U.S. terror suspects.)

"Helping people who have already been harmed by trauma is essential," Eidelson and two colleagues wrote in "The Dark Side of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness." "But should we be involved in helping an institution prepare to place more people in harm’s way without careful and ongoing questioning and review of the rationale for doing so?"

Good question. If we really cared about our troops, wouldn't we keep them out of wars in the first place? According to the Institute of Medicine report, between 2000 and 2011, "936,283 current or former service members have been diagnosed with a psychological condition; such diagnoses increased by about 62 percent among active-duty service members during approximately the same time frame." Disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Credit U.S. Army,

Of course, that's far from the only harm suffered by U.S. troops. According to a report by Harvard's Shorenstein Center, more than 6,500 American soldiers have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded since 9/11. More than 1,700 soldiers have lost one or more limbs, and more than 250,000 have suffered a brain injury. Post-9/11 U.S. wars cost as much as $6 trillion so far, money that could have helped improve health care, education and transportation in this country. And let's not forget the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed or maimed under U.S. occupation.

The psychological suffering of U.S. veterans is just one symptom of a terrible disease afflicting our culture, the disease of militarism. The goal of psychologists—and all of us--should be to eradicate this scourge, not merely to treat its symptoms.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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