View From the Hill

View From the Hill

The tale of two very different soldiers came into relief for me this week as tragic details trickled in about the case of Army sergeant John Russell fatally shooting five of his fellow service members on a military base in Baghdad. Russell, reportedly on his third tour of duty, overstressed and worried about being discharged, opened fire on five unsuspecting soldiers at a clinic intended to help those suffering from mental fatigue.

Back in Washington, Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen and Defense secretary Robert Gates were testifying before the House Armed Services Committee and emphasizing the importance of caring for our troops.

Admiral Mullen noted a distressingly high number of suicides in his opening statement. "The army in particular has been hit hard by a troubling increase over the past four years and an already disturbing number of suicides in 2009," he said. "We do not know why this is occurring, though the increased stress of wartime is certainly a factor."

In the first few minutes of his testimony, Gates observed, "If we don't get the people part of this business right, none of our other decisions will matter." Gates also mentioned the number of troops who are in stop-loss -- meaning their tour of duty has been involuntarily extended based on the needs of the military -- a number he put at 13,000 soldiers.

Among the room full of observers who looked on was a second soldier, Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point grad and Arabic linguist who is being discharged under the military's ban on gays serving openly. He is one of 12,000-plus soldiers who have been forced out of service for being gay -- one of 12,000-plus soldiers who could be relieving an overstretched force and helping to prevent more suicides and homicides. That does not even take into account the more than 40,000 additional gays and lesbians who statisticians believe would join the armed forces if the ban were lifted.

During a break in the hearing, Choi reinforced Gates's and Mullen's emphasis on military personnel, explaining to me how important human beings and relationships are to the type of warfare we're engaged with in the Iraq and Af-Pak theatres.


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