Probing the High Suicide Rate among Soldiers in Iraq: In Pushing for the Military to Release Undisclosed Data, Reporters Found Soldiers Who Battled Mental Illness and Took Their Own Lives during the War

Article excerpt

Even as our newsroom numbers have dwindled, The Hartford Courant has held on to a tradition of strong investigative work. So at a brainstorming session in early 2005, one of our bosses urged our desk to think big, to cast aside concerns about geography and cost, and reach for the most meaningful stories we could write.

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"You have to understand," she said directly. "The editor has given us a blank check to save lives and right wrongs, anywhere in the world."

That bold edict may sound heretical at a time when cost-cutting and hyperlocal initiatives dominate the agenda at American newspapers. But watchdog journalism is part of the foundation of the press, and the investigative desk here holds fast to the notion that readers can care deeply about events going on well beyond their zip codes.

In the winter of 2005, we were pretty sure they cared deeply about the Iraq War. And as the conflict entered its third year, we began thinking about two basic questions: With media reports showing recruiting shortfalls and pressure to maintain troop strength, was the U.S. military lowering the bar and sending soldiers to war with serious mental illnesses? And were troops who developed mental problems in the war zone receiving the treatment they needed? Those questions led us to make some initial calls to veterans' advocates and other sources, and they encouraged us to look further into the gaps in mental health care.

Since Connecticut's only active military installation is a submarine base and relatively few of our residents have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, another question we raised was whether this would be a worthy story for The Hartford Courant to pursue.

Our answer: absolutely.

Meshing Personal With Policy

The hyperlocal crowd makes a persuasive market-economics argument that newspapers should direct resources to the stories that no one else can do--community and statewide news beyond the reach of the national outlets. But there must be room for pursuing significant stories that the national players simply aren't doing. In our early research exploring this topic, we found a lot of stories focused on mental health issues for veterans. What we had a much harder time finding was any in-depth print reporting on the mental fitness of those still in the war zone or heading there. So that's where we set our sights.

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The result, more than a year later, was a four-day series revealing that the military was sending, keeping and recycling mentally troubled troops into combat, often in violation of its policies. We discovered that despite a congressional mandate to assess the mental health of all deploying troops, the military's own data showed that not even one in 300 service members was seen by a mental health professional at deployment--far fewer than the military believes have serious mental health issues. Our reporting also showed that the military was increasingly relying on psychotropic medications to keep mentally troubled service members in combat, often with minimal monitoring and counseling. And our series revealed that a growing number of troops suffering posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were being sent back to the battlefield for second, third and fourth tours of duty, at an increased risk to their long-term mental health.

We attacked the story from two sides. In seeking military information, we battled with the Department of Defense to obtain their data and reports that revealed systemic flaws in the military mental health system. We also reached out to the families of service members who had committed suicide in Iraq and with their help were able to bring readers face-to-face with the human cost of these flaws. The following circumstances were among those we discovered and wrote about:

* We found one soldier kept in Iraq by commanders who overruled a military psychologist's finding that he should be sent home. …