When I informed my family of my decision to enlist, the general reaction was the type of shock more commonly associated blunt head trauma. My father pointed out the closest interest I had shown to anything martial was my brief albeit impassioned performance of Tybault in my junior high’s production of Romeo and Juliet. When we went on our annual summer rambles cross-country, I was dragged to every battle ship, plane, helicopter, and tank to survive WWII; while my four brothers enthusiastically clamored about the bulwarks, I would find a bench and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Nevertheless, for my own and very convoluted reasons, I did enlist in the United States Marine Corps after high school; and, until I was discharged for my disordered eating and mental disorders- ironically, the motivation to enlist- I, while often lonely, sometimes miserable, and occasionally with joy, did my job.
An interesting effect of living as I did for an extended amount of time in a situation in which I did not remotely belong was a surprising clarification of life goals. I want to advocate for help for eating disorders in the VA. Federally endorsed, Veteran’s Affairs has the money but is only slowly developing the health care requisite for the growing female population in the military. We are, admittedly, a relatively recent development, and yet the VA does have one service women’s department: therapy for sexual assault. Sexual politics aside, the department needs to address a less publicized but possibly equally prevalent issue. Given the ubiquity of eating disorders, particularly among college-age women, it would be singularly egotistic to believe I was the only young woman in the military with this particular brand of insanity. Women in the military do not have the support systems available to college students (many of whom have access to counselors) or civilians in general (who have the legal right to seek professional help, without permission and at any time), rather, they are more likely to be told, as I initially was, to summarily “suck it up.” Not being taken seriously with her self-esteem already hanging precariously, a young, enlisted woman- low in her professional pecking order- is unlikely to continue to seek professional help. Odd as it would have seemed at the thick of it, the severity of my eating disorder made me lucky, in that it became impossible to ignore. It became impossible to quietly, professionally, sweep under the rug. I was passing out in the office and puking blood- as almost physically-tangibly embarrassing as those scenes were (and are), they ultimately resulted in my dismissal from the Marine Corps and ability to seek professional help.
However despite the dual physical and emotional consequences of this disorder, the military does not medically support women separated with its diagnosis. A soldier who breaks his leg on a skiing trip on leave is medically separated and receives free medical care as relevant to his injury as well as a monthly stipend, however small, for the rest of his life. A woman who vomits blood and lives in very real, physical distress for months on end is “Administratively Processed” as either Failure to Adapt or a Personality Disorder. Therefore, she does not receive any fiscal VA benefits to help her pay for what can be very costly treatment. I am fortunate enough, as I have been the entirety of my life, to have my father; in this case because of his professional insurance which paid for the majority of my treatment as well as his frugality which allowed him to pay for the rest. Given the amount of women I knew while in the service who enlisted in large part to escape or deal with psychologically and/or financially broken families, I do not hope to suppose they all have such sound support systems on the civilian side. As the military has learned to accept the reality of black Americans, women, and open homosexuals among their ranks, and make progress in taking care of these minorities, proving the daunting martial system is not entirely immutable, I propose the military accept that eating disorders are a statistical reality; that it is not necessary to Administratively Process women who wish to finish their enlistments if they are allowed to seek professional therapists and doctors; and, finally, that women who struggle with eating disorders- whether or not they were initially induced by their service- merit the legal right to receive such benefits as will allow them to fight their battle.
This is just a scratch on the surface, however. The VA does offer counseling for PTSD and depression. While that is admirable and proper, it does not account for mental disorders developed independently of service. I subscribe to the somewhat controversial school of psychiatric thought that states everyone has a psychotic side; just as the physical body, no matter how healthy and strong, has a breaking point, we have psychological thresholds as well. And like low-grade colds, some people have greater struggles with their closet mental difficulties. Lupus of the mind, if you will.
I enlisted during a political swell, when the Marine Corps was seeking to increase its numerical force. Again, I believe it would be incredibly self-centered to suppose I was the only enlistee swept into boot camp having been encouraged to keep my history of struggling with mental stability quiet. I was honest with my recruiter, citing my propensity to, under times of duress, hear voices and suppose imaginary things; I mentioned my history of mental care including medication. I remember exactly what he said. “Everyone has their skeletons in their closet. Just keep it quiet, you’ll be fine.” I do not blame my recruiter personally any more than I blame the doctors at the MEPS, Military Entrance Processing Station, for disinterestedly accepting my vague reasons for the self-induced scars all over my body. The military needed more people; the mission objective was recruit Marines; our mental health was not called into question. I had to sign more paperwork regarding my ¼ inch tattoo on my wrist than I did regarding my clinical depression.
Can we realistically believe the Marine Corps can do a thorough background check of its enlistees? To a degree, it is ignored. Jobless and uneducated men and women make ideal recruits; socioeconomically we are statistically heavy from lower income areas with poorer education. However, once the Marine Corps ushered me in, it seemed surprised when my subtle schizophrenia bucked and I became A Problem; I was told by my immediate command alternatively to grow up, to calm down, and to shut up and do my job. I proceeded to do just so, perhaps as a testament to the Marine Corp’s ability to achieve mission objective regardless to what odds may be; as a Marine, I was instilled with the discipline to accept my personal unhappiness as immaterial relative to the whole, and my eating disorder shot through the roof. That was my personal way of dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness; suicide is prevalent. A 2009 article states that:
The army suicide rate is now higher than that among the general American population. The rate has been calculated as 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, compared with 19.5 per 100,000 civilians. This is a shocking statistic, as soldiers theoretically are screened for mental illnesses before enlistment and have access to counselling [sic] and health services that millions of ordinary people cannot afford.[i]
Given the high suicide rate throughout the military it seems not only humane but good business sense to both better screen recruits and to provide actual as opposed to theoretical “counseling and health services”.
I firmly believe the VA should allow a program for veterans to seek help for their mental difficulties regardless of the origin of the trouble. That is quite contradictory to the bureaucratic stance that only Marines suffering from PTSD or depression inspired from a combat-induced trauma are eligible to receive care. There is a stigma attached to the Marine Corps, and it is completely inaccurate. We are not the toughest, the brightest, or the best. We have fabulous recruiting commercials and a humbling history. We have tough, we have bright, and we likely do have the best, but not every Marine is representative of that ferocious standard. In my service I often encountered fellow junior enlisted Marines who were very unhappy- not necessarily as a result of the Marine Corps, as many enlisted because of that deep-seated unhappiness, although the Marine Corps hardly helped- who kept quiet because of the stigma, the image of a tough war fighter we were supposed to emulate.
Soldiers are dreamers.[ii] The United States Marine Corps is populated by remarkable men and women and I do not presume to know every individual’s motivation for enlisting. I only know mine: a vaguely Hemingway-esque desire to do something Great to Write About. I was drawn to the promise of self-discipline, as my eating disorder veered wildly out of control; I was exhausted with the discouraging voices that fretted about my subconscious and made me miserable. Had I not been prone to the compulsions of any 18-year-old girl, I should perhaps have considered a good women’s studies class instead of the Marine Corps. That knowledge comes only with the clarity of retrospect, however, and I did choose to enlist. My motives were never questioned. It was presumed I had survived a rape or traumatic child abuse, as sadly many of my female peers had.
I came out the other end, remarkably, alive and, if not whole, much closer. This cannot be attributed to the military system, to any degree, unless to suggest it was only under the severe stress of the Corps that I began to ask myself what it was I needed (a good therapist, a healthy dose of Naomi Wolf, and the mind-blowing idea that my own happiness was actually important).
The most important thing to come from my three year service was the realization that something is very, very wrong with the bureaucracy of the Marine Corps. For every one suicide, there is another attempted 10 and half of these are severe enough for the individual to be hospitalized . We’re an unhappy lot. The military system has countless ‘recourses’ for soldiers and Marines but the individual’s leadership, at least in my experience, harasses you if you intend to use them. A Marine with depression is frequently told, “You think this is bad, wait until you deploy.” Not particularly helpful. Essentially, the Marine Corps is a “culture that views psychological illness as a weakness.”[iii] This harshness is attributed to the necessity of keeping Marines in a ‘combat mindset’- the theory that we must at all times be prepared to go to war. And yet how ‘combat ready’ is a Marine in the deep drain of depression and desperation? Pundits, politicians, and military leaders inevitably chalk these unnecessary deaths to the stress of war, and no doubt many are. But that does not account for the fact that a large portion of suicides and depression are among undeployed troops, and many have never deployed, in fact, in 2010 Army Secretary John McHugh stated, “A third of the confirmed suicides are committed by troops that had never deployed.”[iv]
It is time for the military to undergo a long overdue change. It will be a long, uphill battle- especially when you have the VA shushing up important statistics. But if there is one thing these service men and women deserve, one benefit they have surely earned, is it not the right to personal happiness?
[i] Cogan, James. “Suicide claims more US military lives than Afghan war.” wsws.org. Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), 6 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1981284,00.html >.
[ii] Siegfried Sassoon. Louis Untermeyer, ed. (1885–1977). Modern British Poetry. 1920.
[iii] Zoroya, Greg. “Army reports record number of suicides for June – USATODAY.com.” USA TODAY. N.p., 18 July 2010. Web. 5 Apr. 2011. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2010-07-15-army-suicides_N.htm>.
[iv]Thompson , Mark. “Is the U.S. Army losing its war on suicide?.” TIME. N.p., 13 Apr. 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2011. <www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1981284,00.html >.