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Toxic Cultures Beyond Wheaton: The Army

This piece comes from a contributor that wishes to remain anonymous. If, from context, you know who the writer is, please respect their desire to remain anonymous as this is a sensitive issue and privacy is extremely important.

Wheaton College can be a difficult institution to productively thrive in. Academic pressures are high, judgment seems to be hurtling at us from every direction with regards to our grades, spirituality, sexuality, physical and emotional fitness—it is by no means unusual to be overwhelmed. But this is not a unique experience. College is stressful. Heck, life is stressful. The perception that the Wheaton bubble is elitist and repressive is, in my opinion, an accurate depiction, but I think it is important to critically interrogate other institutions for perspective. Having experienced overwhelmingly stressful ordeals with the military as an ROTC student this semester, perhaps my story will provide some perspective.

Over the past several years, I have endured the slow and grueling process of coming to terms with a history of abuse in my family. The month during which I finally was able to put the word abuse to the situation I was experiencing was the most excruciating month of my life. Leading up to going home for Christmas break, and during Christmas break, I experienced severe depression and anxiety attacks. For several years, I had considered seeking medical treatment for my depression, but it took this lowest of lows to push me over the edge.

Seeking out medication was more complicated than it would be for the average Wheaton student. Granted, I have insurance, the support of my parents in seeking treatment, and the self-awareness to be confident that this was something I wanted to pursue – but I, unlike the average student, was afraid of being prevented from commissioning with the military and losing my full tuition scholarship. This would inevitably lead to the forced outing of both my depression, and potentially my family problems, to all of my friends and family, who would want to know why I was no longer contracted.

After months of degrading miscommunication with the Army leadership at Wheaton, we finally came to a resolution, and worked out terms on which I can stay in the Army. Having worked everything out, I am of course tempted to remain silent on these issues for fear of alternative repercussions. However, having talked to several other cadets dealing with depression and anxiety who have not reached any kind of resolution, I know that silence is not an option.

The military has created and consistently condoned a culture of deception. Rules and regulations not capable of being met are the standard. This means that Soldiers are forced to lie in some circumstances, and that it is not possible to be successful in the military without deception in at least some instances. This both forces people to lie, and makes people complicit in rule breaking in all kinds of situations, not just instances where red tape has created a paradigm of permissible infractions. This is one of the reasons sexual assault and harassment are such huge problems in the military. It also undoubtedly contributes to the environment that promotes suppressing mental and emotional health struggles, often leading to suicide in unprecedented numbers among Soldiers and veterans.

The military engages in the unique practice of strictly enforcing a façade of legalism and rigidity, while simultaneously overlooking virtually any rule when it is convenient or helpful. This ambiguity about the rules ensures that Soldiers will be extremely hesitant to report misconduct that need to be reported when there is any risk of repercussion. It also means that when misconduct are reported, there is not necessarily a protocol for action. When reports of misconduct are made, regardless of their legitimacy, action will be inconsistent, reactionary, and not necessarily on a basis of actual principle.

This framework sets military leaders up for failure. It simultaneously inspires a sense of integrity by perpetuating the belief that they have met some high standard of doctrine and tradition, and engenders a veneer of being above the law by ensuring that all military leaders will break some rules at some point. This paradoxical sense of superiority creates an unattainable quality of a person — someone who is unwaveringly principled yet willfully breaks rules for the benefit of the organization. This elitism also encourages the politicization of military decisions, giving military leaders discretion well outside their bounds, creating opportunities to enforce the laws in ways that discriminate against certain persons or groups.

Just in order to contract with the Army, the plethora of rules gets out of hand. “Current or history of alcohol dependence (303), drug dependence (304), alcohol abuse (305), or other drug abuse (305.2 thru 305.9) is disqualifying. Enuresis (wetting the bed) (307.6) or encopresis (307.7) after 13th birthday is disqualifying. Sleepwalking (307.4) after 13th birthday is disqualifying. Eating disorders (307.5), anorexia nervosa (307.1), bulimia (307.51), or unspecified disorders of eating (307.59) lasting longer than 3 months and occurring after 13th birthday are disqualifying. Current or history of anxiety disorders (anxiety (300.01) or panic (300.2)), agoraphobia (300.21), social phobia (300.23), simple phobias (300.29), obsessive-compulsive (300.3), other acute reactions to stress (308), and posttraumatic stress disorder (309.81) are disqualifying. Current or history of psychosexual conditions (302), including, but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias, are disqualifying.” [1]

Despite rules against abuse of alcohol or drugs, 11 percent of servicemembers in 2008 reported misusing prescription drugs, up from 2 percent in 2002 and 4 percent in 2005. Most of the prescription drugs misused by service members are opioid pain medications. Almost half of active duty service members (47 percent) reported binge drinking in 2008—up from 35 percent in 1998. In 2008, 20 percent of military personnel reported binge drinking every week in the past month.[2]

Despite rules against being transgender, it’s estimated that over 134,000 American veterans are transgender, and over 15,000 trans people are serving in military today despite rules forbidding them to serve openly. Some “have been forced to conceal that identity, according to the Williams Institute, a center at the University of California at Los Angeles that studies gay and transgender populations. Some have found themselves in a precarious position — open to sympathetic peers and superiors but at risk of being discharged if someone who disapproves finds out.”[3]

Despite mental health problems being disqualifying, “almost 25% of nearly 5,500 active-duty, non-deployed Army soldiers surveyed tested positive for a mental disorder of some kind, and 11% within that subgroup also tested positive for more than one illness.” Some of those conditions are related to the hard experience of a wartime Army, but Harvard epidemiologist Ronald Kessler said nearly half of the soldiers who were diagnosed with a mental disorder had it when they enlisted. The rate of major depression is five times as high among soldiers as civilians; intermittent explosive disorder, which results in episodes of extreme anger, is six times as high; and post-traumatic stress disorder was nearly 15 times higher than among civilians, the study found. Kessler articulated, “we’ve got to figure out some ways to get people early in the process, as part of the process, saying, ‘Look, you’re making yourself the most complete soldier, the most effective person. You’ve got to prepare yourself mentally, as well, and be willing to admit that everybody has problems.’ “[4]

A list of just about every mental health problem, fetishes, fever symptoms, and recreational habits like the disqualifying qualities above could not possibly truly allow anyone to be “qualified” for the military. We create a list of things that may or may not inhibit effective service and make them disqualifying, but only enforce such disqualification when it actually interferes with service enough to draw attention from those willing to report such violations. This has several effects. First of all, it stops competent people from being in the military. Secondly, it creates a framework that allows incompetent people to remain in the service, if they happen to conceal any of the litany of possible violations the military has deemed to be reasonable grounds for disqualification or termination. Third, it serves as a filter, not of qualified and unqualified service men and women, but of people who are willing to lie and people who are not, allowing only those who are willing to lie through. Finally, it creates a framework for broad discretion to be misused in dangerous ways.

The list itself is dangerous to begin with. Depression is common. “An estimated 22% of Americans ages 18 and older (about 1 in 5 adults), suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. 4 out of 10 leading causes of disability in the US and other developed countries are mental health disorders. Major depression is the leading cause of disability in the US.” It is also gendered. “Nearly twice as many women (12.0%) as men (6.6%) are affected by depression.”[5] Depression is also income related. “In 2005–2010, among adults 20–44 and 45–64 years of age, depression was five times as high for those below poverty, about three times as high for those with family income at 100%–199% of poverty, and 60% higher for those with income at 200%–399% of poverty compared with those at 400% or more of the poverty level.”[6] It is also racialized. “African-Americans have the highest rate of current depression (12.8 percent), followed by Hispanics (11.4 percent), and whites (7.9 percent).”[7] Depression is also correlated with stressful and traumatic life events. De jure discrimination on the basis of depression is de facto discrimination against women, minorities, impoverished, and those who have been subjected to rape, abuse, loss, and other trauma. If depression were necessarily permanently debilitating from military work, that would be one thing. But people’s ability to cope with depression covers a spectrum just as wide as people’s ability to cope with the inane bureaucracy that is military life. Also, these marginalized demographics should not be considered for diversity’s sake alone (while that is a worthy reason by itself); it is those who have experienced marginalization who have the strongest ability to empathize with those the military seeks to help, and the most experience overcoming difficult and stressful circumstances.

Furthermore, many people with depression do not have the resources or wherewithal to recognize what they are experiencing. It was only at the suggestion of my best friend that I first looked up symptoms of depression and began to wonder if that is what I was experiencing. It was only because my college has a counseling center that is accessible and relatively unstigmatized that I was able to seek counseling. It was only because I have insurance that covers mental health that I was able to go to a psychiatrist. It is only because I am a self-aware and strong person that I have been able to acknowledge to myself that I have depression. Yet all of these experiences that are evidence of my prevailing vitality are the exact reasons I can be disqualified. If anywhere along that chain I had lacked in friends, resources, or personal courage, I would not be in the place where I am, at risk of disqualification.

This means that those who are most in touch with their own mental health and those who are the most likely to be able and willing to reach out when they need help are shut out from the military from the very beginning. This is unfortunate for those individuals who are excluded, but it is even more unfortunate for the many individuals who make it into the military and find themselves surrounded by people who either have no experience with mental health concerns or do not have the resources or strength to realize their struggles.

We should not create a function of competence dependent on an arbitrary list that may or may not speak to someone’s actual ability. It would service the military much better to instead create a standard of quality of service, which impeded for any reason, could lead to discharge, that is dependent on performance and outcomes, not inputs. I understand that it is probably easier to measure inputs than outputs, but that is no excuse for discrimination on questionable bases.

Perhaps the most egregious manifestation of these problematic standards is the fact that the standards themselves so clearly violate the Army values. Loyalty to the Constitution and to each other as American Soldiers; duty to defend one another’s rights as Americans; respect for each individual Soldier, regardless of his or her background or personality; selfless service to the country as a whole and to one’s fellow Soldiers; honor in all one’s dealing with fellow Soldiers; integrity in showing no favoritism toward or bias against any group of Americans over another; and personal courage in defending fellow Soldiers from harassment because of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, political views, economic status, or regional origins — these are supposedly what the Army stands for. How we claim to hold those values and simultaneously hold shamefully discriminatory bases for participation in our very institution, I do not know. And I plan to do everything I can to fight this toxic culture, whether I am forced to do it from the outside, or if I am granted the opportunity to command a unit, from within.

I am not sorry that I have emotions, am in touch with them, and am willing to act on them. I am sorry that the Army sees that as weak, and is utterly unaware of the fact that it actually makes me strong. The military probably think of me as a liability. If I’m not reported, and it is later revealed that I have depression, the officers above me right now might feel responsible. But the true liability is the fact that every single person in the Rolling Thunder battalion, and in fact all battalions, is at risk of mental health problems, and that if such problems were to arise (which I know for a fact they have in at least several others), they would be strongly incentivized to suppress their issues, or treat them in secret and risk having to go off of the medication for unpredictable amounts of time to avoid getting caught. The true liability is the fact that enforcing inconsistently applied, destructive rules contributes to perpetuating a not unreasonable fear of seeking help that will likely drive people in our battalion right now to consider or attempt suicide in their future service, or even during their remaining time at Wheaton.









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