WASHINGTON – Brig. General Ernest Litynski received numerous awards and decorations during his nearly three decades in the military. But he is best known among soldiers and his superiors for his campaign to shed light on mental health issues among the troops, bit by bit eliminating the stigma that often leads to tragedy.
In meetings with new formations of Army Reserve troops, he could first talk about physical fitness and training before moving on to the story of his own outcome after returning from Afghanistan, when he sat in his dark basement, ignoring his family and staring into nothingness.
“I withdrew from everyone between 2007 and 2010,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t go to family parties, events, I wouldn’t go out with my family to eat. I turned on the TV just for the noise. I wouldn’t go to bed with my wife. The burden I put on my wife and 12 year old daughter must have been the worst.
His daughter hasn’t spoken to him for years, he said.
He tells his story at ceremonies and gatherings, and makes a video which the military has posted on some of its Facebook accounts, usually a repository of war memorabilia, vaccine information and cold-weather exercise footage. “It’s a shame if you show weakness,” he says, his voice shaking as he recounts his struggles with post-traumatic stress. “That’s how I felt.”
General Litynski’s campaign is striking in the military, where resilience is not just celebrated, but part of the job description.
After two decades of war, the Army has yet to make significant progress on what many experts, lawmakers and service members consider one of its most enduring problems – unresolved mental health issues and increasing suicide rates among the troops.
“The needle didn’t move at all in that,” said Mark C. Russell, a former Navy commander who is now a professor at Antioch University in Seattle with expertise in military trauma. He added: “So it’s rare for someone with a star on their lapel to speak out.”
The suicide rate among active duty service members has increased by more than 40% between 2015 and 2020, according to Department of Defense data. The military historically lagged the general population in suicide rates, but in recent years it has caught up.
A report from last year’s Costs of War Project at Brown University found that approximately 30,177 active duty service members and veterans who have served since the September 11, 2001 attacks have died by suicide, compared to 7,057 killed in military operations during the two decades of the War on Terror.
Over several years of writing about veterans and military affairs, I have received dozens of emails from desperate military personnel, or their family members, about their mental health issues and difficulty getting help when not in use. Some families have written about the loss of loved ones to suicide.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is retiring at the end of her term in January, said the issue was so pressing: “I can guarantee you up front that this will be the focus of my work this year.”
While some service members, like General Litynski, have suffered battle-related trauma or injuries, others enter the military with mental health issues that aren’t revealed during medical exams or become more intense through the following.
The problem reflects a broader crisis in the country, with millions of Americans not having access to or seeking mental health care.
“Members of the military have to perform at a very high level and it comes at a cost,” said Sherman Gillums Jr., a retired naval officer and former senior executive of Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“We are taught to hide everything that is wrong with us, to adapt and to overcome. The military culture sees asking for help as a liability, from recruitment to training to the rest of one’s career.
General Litynski was born in Chicago and joined the military in 1994. He has several advanced degrees and military awards during a career that has included tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and held various command positions in the active and reserve component. He is now the commanding general of the 76th Operational Response Command in Salt Lake City.
After returning from overseas in 2009, General Litynski said his work life seemed fine, but he isolated himself in his basement when he returned home at night. “I didn’t do anything,” he said, other than “let the time pass.”
His few interactions with his family were generally stormy. When his wife, Jennifer, dented their van in a parking lot, he responded by violently hitting the vehicle repeatedly. “It was a 180 degree turn from who Ernie Litynski was,” he said.
In 2011, his wife said she had had enough. “That’s what triggered me. That moment was basically an ultimatum, and rightly so,” Gen Litynski said.
He asked for help and began to reflect on the troops he had seen die overseas and the death of his youngest daughter from a rare genetic disease less than a year after she was born.
His psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs had an idea: discuss his struggles with his unit at the time in Milwaukee instead of giving the usual PowerPoint on post-traumatic stress.
General Litynski feared that no one would understand and how it might affect his career. But in the end, he said, “I did everything.”
Some in the audience revealed experiences they had previously been too ashamed to share. “Young soldiers talked to me afterwards, hugged me and cried,” he said.
The speech has become his trademark, in a way. “When he first came to our unit, he told us he felt helpless and was ready to give it up,” said Scott Alsup, who served under General Litynski in Iraq. “He helped me get into rehab, which probably saved my life.”
“As a man, you don’t talk about your feelings,” he added, “and having someone who wasn’t afraid to show it was a huge, huge relief.”
In 2019, after speaking at an event in Florida for the redeployment of soldiers, General Litynski caught the attention of senior army officers, who encouraged him to make a video, which was published on the army’s Facebook pages.
While many applaud General Litynski’s efforts, veterans who suffered mental health issues while serving said the military needed to do much more, such as improving health screenings for new recruits. Training must change and leaders must learn to solve problems before they escalate, they say.
“There’s stigma, it persists, and it’s real,” said Elizabeth S. Pietralczyk, a family physician in Alaska who joined the Air Force in 2003 to help out in medical school. She left the military in 2021 before receiving her lifetime pension, she said, due to her mental health issues. “People doubt your sincerity when you did an incredible job of managing everything until it imploded,” she said. “It’s a common story.”
Dr Pietralczyk was offered a job as a flight doctor, but to get it she needed training in case she was captured, she said. She refused. “A lot of training exercises can be triggers for people,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t recognize it.”
Harassment from her superiors led to panic, anxiety and depression, she said. She was considering hospitalization, but feared it would affect her career as a doctor.
The message of resilience at all costs is necessary for fighters, but it can ultimately backfire, military leaders and experts say.
“Force readiness depends on the strength and resilience of each soldier,” said Simon B. Flake, an Army spokesman.
“It takes a self-aware and courageous soldier to admit they need help,” he added, noting that the army has increased troop support services.
National Guard and Reserve members often lack medical insurance or access to mental health resources. “We see so many stories when a mental health process ends in tragedy,” said J. Roy Robinson, retired brigadier general and president of the US National Guard Association. “I really believe that a lot of these issues are access related.”
Mr Gillums noted that more soldiers were sharing their experiences of sexual harassment, assault and mental health issues on social media.
“It could be a cross-generational change,” he said, “starting with young people who see themselves as humans first beyond their uniform and weapon.”