The Uncomfortable Truth about the Rise in Military Suicides

The truth can be uncomfortable and truthfully most people don’t like to deal with uncomfortable things.  Suicide is one of those things that tend to make us uncomfortable.  Occasionally someone will demand the truth and when they finally get, the truth becomes a very uncomfortable thing and frankly many people cannot handle the truth. It reminds me of the exchange in the movie A Few Good Men where Colonel Jessup played by Jack Nicholson tells Lieutenant Dan Caffey played by the Tom Cruise: “You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth!”

The United States Military has been struggling with an upsurge of suicides and suicide attempts among its personnel since 2005.  Before that point military suicide rates were comparable or lower than comparable civilian populations. That is no longer the case, the military suicide rate is now higher than the civilian rate by a statistically significant percent.

The Associated Press reported a Defense Department report noting that in the first 155 days of 2012 that 154 active duty service members had killed themselves. That number is going up, I know of at least two at my base that have occurred since this report was released including a murder suicide committed by a Staff Sergeant who had recently returned from Afghanistan.

The military has tried to stem the tide. It has bolstered its mental health services and suicide prevention programs but the numbers despite leveling out in 2010 and 2011 have been rising. These numbers are reaching staggering proportions in the active duty, reserve and discharged veteran ranks.

A Veteran’s Administration Crisis line reported that in in 2011 it had received over 164,000 calls last year. It reported 6760 rescues and noted that 2300 self reported Active Duty personnel had called their hotline as well as over 12000 calls from family members or friends of veterans regarding their loved ones.

The rise in suicides particularly as the mission in Iraq has ended and Afghanistan is beginning to draw down has surprised many both inside and outside the military. While many of the men and women who committed or   attempted suicide even more have done so who have not deployed. People are speculating about the reasons for this and we know a lot of the answers and underlying causes.

First and foremost is the stress put on the force by 10 years of non-stop deployments to combat zones and fighting two major insurgencies at the same time and the resultant effects: Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen killed and wounded, combat stress injuries, PTSD, TBI, moral injury, family issues, divorce, infidelity, financial problems, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug abuse. As a Chaplain I know many young men and women who grew up in Christian homes and had what they described as a deep faith who after war have lost their faith. I see an increasing number of these young men and women.

An additional factor is the fact that we are entering a period of time where Soldiers and Marines and to a lesser degree Sailors and Airmen are being threatened with a massive drawdown in numbers.  This will force many to leave the military in the midst of a long term economic downturn that could get worse based on the precarious economy of the Eurozone which threatens the US economy.

There is the perception on the part of many in the military that they fight the war alone. There is a real lack of understanding in the civilian population as a whole about what is involved in going to war. Since only about one half of one percent of the American population is in the military at any given time this should not be a surprise. Finally there is a widely held belief among those that fight the war, no matter what sacrifices they make in Afghanistan that it will not matter in the end, that the war cannot be won. No one wants to admit this but the fact of the matter is that it is true because neither political reads history.

However as important as all of those factors are they are now joined by another factor that was not a factor in the early part of the war. The bond of unit cohesion which was a positive factor is eroding. Prior to the war and during the first few years of it unit cohesion was strengthened by seasoned and mature Staff NCOs, Petty Officers. These men and women had risen through the ranks and were seasoned by years of training, well rounded careers, combat experience and deployments. Many had some amount of college education. They dealt with their own stress well and were excellent leaders and mentors to junior personnel and the young officers that they helped to train.

I was at a training conference in March attended by a couple of hundred Chaplains and Mental Health Professionals. One of the seminars dealt with a program to train the young NCOs and Petty Officers to be first responders who could care for their Marines and Sailors. During the question and answer portion I decided to bring this up. I said that “the program would be great if we had the same force that we started the war with and that the men and women that we were depending on to do this job were themselves among the injured.” I said that the force was “hardened but brittle.” A number of people including the Subject Matter Expert agreed with me, others, mostly those who were relatively new to the military looked at me like I had gone off the reservation. I brought this up at another conference this month with a similar response.

That seasoned core is gone. In their place are younger, combat hardened veterans. Unfortunately many of these young men and women, charged with leading and training the new Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen are damaged goods themselves. They have been back and forth to war so many times that they bear unspeakable burdens. Many suffer from unreported PTSD, struggle with alcoholism and have pressing personal or family problems. Some of them take out these issues on the new troops, something that I think is directly related to the suicide epidemic and other problems. The attitudes of some have become poisonous to good order and discipline and actually compromise the trust of of service members to the chain of command. That trust was essential and helped get the military through the first part of this war but I see it being eroded on a daily basis.

A glaring example of this comes not from a NCO but a Army General, the Commander of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss Texas, Major General Dana Pittard at Fort Bliss Texas. General Pittard wrote on his blog: “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”  His attitude serves as a reminder that for many that some leaders see those suffering from PTSD, TBI or other psychological conditions as ‘broken.” Ask any Marine, Soldier, Sailor or Airmen what what it is to be labeled as “broken.” There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, depression, PTSD, suicide and being “broken” that is not helped by statements of leaders like General Pittard.

As a result the resiliency of the force is at stake. Anyone who served in the years following the Vietnam War and the beginning of the all volunteer military can see similarities then and now.  We have not reached the point where the force is broken but the situation will not show much improvement until some point of stability is reached.

I cannot state with certainty the actual proportions of this factor, just my own observations that come from counseling and listening to Marines and Sailors every day. I’m sure that the same is true in the Army where judging by what I read it seems to be worse. The Army suicide rates are the highest in the military.

What has to be done is bigger than the military itself can do. There has to be a national commitment to both finding a way to lessen the stress on the force and to do more than offer platitudes about “supporting the troops.” The truth is that as a nation we refused to pay the cost of these wars and tried to fight them on the cheap. Political leaders after September 11th 2001 told people to “go back to normal” or “go shopping” and did not call the nation to war. The nation was untouched, no one paid a dime in extra taxes and no one was forced to join the military. The burden was placed squarely on those who volunteered. That burden has not been removed and unless the American people and Congress do more than telling the military to “do more with less” while lining the pockets of defense contractors who cannot seem to produce weapons systems without major production problems, cost overruns that are never produced in the promised numbers as well as the war profiteers of the military industrial complex, the lobbyists and Wall Street.

Of course that is just my opinion. It is an opinion formed by serving over 30 years in the military and having gone to war myself. It is an opinion of someone that has been involved with suicide prevention in the military for close to 20 years. It is an opinion based on conversations that I have every day with the young Marines and Sailors that I encounter. It is quietly shared by many leaders.

I have seen what has happened first hand and if anyone actually wants to do something to change the suicide epidemic they need to look at the whole problem. It is a national problem that needs a national solution. As a nation we have burdened a comparatively small part of or population with fighting our wars without a true national commitment to either winning the wars or supporting them.

Military Medicine, Mental Health Services and Chaplains are performing heroic work to care for our troops. Many leaders “get it” and are trying to build a culture where those suffering can get help without suffering the stigma and pain of alienation that comes from being “broken.” Yet despite increases in funding, numbers and emphasis the problem continues to escalate. That is the truth and it will not significantly change until the causes that I have listed are addressed, not simply by the military but the nation.

God help us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, News and current events, Pastoral Care

2 responses to “The Uncomfortable Truth about the Rise in Military Suicides

  1. Very moving! I’m a s/c disabled vet of the Navy. I have attempted suicide and needed to use the VA hotline numerous times. I have PTSD from having been drugged and sexually assaulted in a VA hospital in 1986 by a government physician. I try my best to stay stable, but the VA’s response to what happened (and I had so much proof that the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners suspended his license for 5 yrs) has been horrible. I need support that the system is never going to provide. Anyway, I have incredible compassion for those who have been serving during all of the Middle East conflicts, and I know something’s got to give in the overall system. Let’s disseminate Op/Ed’s like this one from Padre Steve and get the attitude of Americans turned around.

    • padresteve

      Julia,
      Thank you for your kind addition of your story to this narrative. Please know that you are not alone. Peace and blessings, Padre Steve+

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