The story is a familiar one: A Marine had been suffering from anxiety and depression, and no one was helping him. When his condition continued to decline, he left training without permission (called unauthorized absence in the Marine Corps). Two months later he called us about surrendering. We told him that normally this length of absence would signal to the command that he would never be a Marine they could rely on, and typically they would discharge people in his situation. In this case, when the Marine turned himself in, he was sent back to restart his training.
Another person called after his training had been interrupted by hospitalization for attempted suicide. At first he was told he would be separated, but suddenly he was given orders to restart training. Before he hung up, he put a friend on the phone. This friend had been hospitalized multiple times for suicide attempts. He too had just been told he was going back to try another round of training. He described a conversation with his sergeant. The sergeant said that he had already had chances to kill himself by now, so the fact that he hadn’t completed the act showed that he was just trying to get attention. At one point, this same trainee was ordered to train with a rifle, even after protesting that he felt suicidal and didn’t feel safe picking up a lethal weapon.
We are noticing more and more situations like these where the military is holding on longer to people who previously would have been discharged as unfit. Many of these cases involve trainees undergoing mental health struggles. It’s evident that these trainees are not adapting to military life; however, instead of letting them go, the military recycles them for another term of training to see whether this time around, somehow they might graduate.
The reason may be explained by recent news stories that say military recruiting is missing targets and will likely continue to struggle. According to NBC News on June 27, 2022:
“Every branch of the military is struggling to make its 2022 recruiting goals… ‘This is the start of a long drought for military recruiting,’ said Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. He said the military has not had such a hard time signing recruits since 1973, the year the U.S. left Vietnam and the draft officially ended. Spoehr said he does not believe a revival of the draft is imminent, but, 2022 is the year we question the sustainability of the all-volunteer force…The pool of those eligible to join the military continues to shrink, with more young men and women than ever disqualified for obesity, drug use or criminal records. Last … [May], Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville testified before Congress that only 23% of Americans ages 17-24 are qualified to serve without a waiver to join, down from 29% in recent years.’”
Regardless of whether the military can make its recruiting targets, it’s very disturbing to hear the risks the military is currently taking with people’s lives. As counselors, we offer support and explain to people how they can stay safe in these circumstances. We encourage them with information on how they can keep bringing attention to their medical limitations in ways that normally lead to discharge. We make sure they have resources at their fingertips in case they go into crisis. We let them know they have not been forgotten, that someone on the outside is following their situation.
Some get impatient and decide to refuse to train. We warn them that refusing to train does put them at risk of punishment (for refusing an order). At the same time, we are honest that in the past, refusal to train often leads the military to give up on the trainee in question and to initiate discharge. We try to make sure each person makes their own safe, informed decision about how to deal with irrational circumstances. We also warn that discharges may take longer now than in the past, but they have our support as long as they need it.
It would be better if policy makers would decide to cut back the US military mission in order to accommodate the shortfall in troops instead of pressuring participants to stay in the military. Perhaps one day, no one will agree to fight, and all wars will end.
For now, it’s difficult to know how long this new normal will last and hard to think about what tragedies it might take for the military to rethink its current push for retention. We hope we can prevent at least some of those tragedies from occurring.