The video below, from Stars and Stripes, shows Staff Sgt. Ty Carter's speech at a ceremony awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor yesterday. Carter, one of only five living recipients of the medal who fought in post 9/11 conflicts, was cited for his actions during a battle in Afghanistan in which he attempted to rescue a fellow soldier, Spc Stephan Mace. Carter pulled Mace to safety and treated him amid a 12-hour-long battle. Mace, wounded grievously, eventually died.*
Carter's speech is notably different from the popular image of a war hero receiving a medal. In lieu of crisp salutes and talk of duty, Carter spends much of his time speaking about loss, and frankly discussing his own mental health after the ordeal. To be clear, Staff Sgt. Carter appears to be a person of extraordinary mettle. In his presentation, however, he does not mind projecting another image, of a young man who has seen too many terrible things. Speaking in what can only be called a tone of vulnerability, he tells the White House audience, including President Obama:
Only those closest to me can see the scars that come from seeing good men take their last breath. During the battle, I lost some of the hearing in my left ear. But I will always hear the voice of Specialist Stephan Mace. I will hear his plea for help for the rest of my life.
He goes on to talk about how he recovered from the experience.
However, thanks to the professionalism of my platoon Sgt, Sgt Hill, and my behavioral health provider, Capt. Cobb, and my friends and family, I will heal.
"Behavioral health" is a synonym for mental health. A "behavioral health provider" is a therapist. In a ceremony traditionally designed to showcase bravery in battle, Carter is taking the extraordinary step of focusing on how he, the classic American war hero, came home from Afghanistan with his head in a bad place. He goes on to speak of anguished families of the soldiers lost in the same violent battle for which he received the medal. President Obama also remarks on the mental health issue.
Certainly what the video below displays is a cultural shift, from the 1940s image of the hard-bitten GI, to the modern, human hero like Carter. It's also tempting to read the focus of this week's ceremony as a tacit pushback against an emerging skepticism about war's role in a wave of military suicides over the past half-decade-plus. Coincidentally, two weeks ago a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed that military deployments were not to blame for the widely-reported rise in suicides among service members since 2005.
The study, which has sparked intense debate, found "suicide risk was independently associated with male sex and mental disorders but not with military-specific variables." It cited a rise in alcohol and drug abuse among the soldiers studied as likely causes for the increase in suicides, but did not consider those influences "military-specific."
*UPDATE 08/28/2013: This post originally stated that Staff Sgt. Ty Carter was one of only five living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. In fact, he is one of five who have received the MOH in the post 9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.