Tag Archives: suicide

I Won’t Shut Up Until It’s Fixed: Military and Veteran Mental Health Treatment

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I came across the story which threw me back in to the abyss of PTSD. I still suffer terribly from it. I have terrible nightmares and night terrors and often physically act out my dreams. Since 2014 this has resulted in two Emergency Room visits due to the injuries incurred in those dreams, including a broken nose. In the deepest depths of anxiety, fear, depression and at times paranoia I contemplated suicide many times. The only thing that kept me from it was what the effect would be on Judy and how my dog Molly would understand that daddy wasn’t ever coming back.

Anyway, I read about the story of Colonel Jim Turner who committed suicide in the parking lot of the Bay Pines Florida, Department Of Veternas Affairs Medical Center. He had dressed in his Dress Blues with Medals, got out of his car, sat on his service records, and killed himself with a rifle. The story struck so close to home because in July of 2014 I was at the same point following an encounter with a a provider and what was a very inhuman and machinelike system of treatment at Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth, Virginia.

I had been getting treatment and therapy since the summer of 2008 when I crashed following my return from Iraq. In 2013 I thought that I was doing well enough to discontinue therapy. But in early January 2014, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two, Captain Tom Sitsch committed suicide outside a hospital in New Hampshire. He had been retired about five years and his life was falling apart, but when I met in the spring of 2008 he was the only man who seemed to care about me, and how I was coping as I was crashing. His death hit me really hard and I realized that I needed to get back into therapy at least to have someone to talk to every couple of weeks to make sure that I was  okay.

I wrote about these encounters on this blog a number of times from the day until it happened until the situation was resolved by the intervention of my former Commanding Officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, NC who had since been promoted to Admiral and put me in direct contact with Rear Admiral Jeff Moulton who commanded the Medical Center and Naval Region East.

After my encounter with the provider, a young Psychiatric Resident physician, I was considering suicide in a very similar way to how Colonel Turner killed himself. I was goi g to purchase a chrome plated M1911A1 .45 pistol, my favorite or all weapons I used in the military, clothe myself in my choker whites with full medals and put a round in my heart. I was ready to do it, and then I thought of the effect on my wife Judy, my dogs, and the people who would witness what I did.

If Admiral Lane had not reached out to Admiral Moulton I might well have died by my own hand. But those men took the time to listen to me and ensure that I got help. They saved my life. I am still in therapy. I still suffer crazy nightmares and act out my dreams, even last week when I scared the shit out of my Papillon dog Izzy and Judy when I tried to defend myself from a enemy combatant who had a pistol pointed at me, but I don’t want to die.

But an interesting thing happened. While reviewing my medical records in preparation for going into the VA system I found that the young Psychiatry Resident had put in a very perjorative diagnois Of a personality disorder based on a brief visit and a phone call, in fact the diagnosis was put in weeks after I had talked with her and after I had talked with Admiral. I guess she never thought that I would know about it. I talked with my current therapist who could access her notes about it today. When we talked he gave the dates on her notes, he told me what she wrote, and so this evening I went to my blog archives because I knew I had written about it when it happened. The result blew me away.

If I was a civilian I could sue her for malpractice, but since I am on active duty I cannot due to to provisions of the Feres Decsion. Now at this point in my life I don’t want revenge, I just want to have the perjorative diagnosis removed from my records. Until today I didn’t realize that I had the evidence at my fingertips, my scrambled brain had me think that the encounter was in 2015, but my blog and the Medical records show that it happened in July and August of 2014.

Pray for me, and if you have any legal advice please let me know. I plan to go forward as the psychiatrist is still on active duty at another base heading a clinic that treats patients with PTSD. I wonder if she is using her position to slander young sailors and marines who disagree with her or do not want to use her as a therapist, and who don’t know that a provider can so easily use a medical record to prejudice other providers against them.

As I said back in 2014, I will not shut up until the system is fixed. The late Colonel David Hackworth who Inhad the honor of corresponding with before he died noted: “If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.”

That is now part of my mission, not just for me, but for men like Colonel Turner, Captain Sitsch, and the countless men and women who have been callously treated by military and Veterans Administration mental health providers. For the approximately 20 military personnel and veterans who take their lives every day. All of us deserve better,

By my calculations the psychiatrist who did this to me wasn’t even born whenI enlisted in the Army or had even entered medical school when I deployed to Iraq. At the time that she saw me she had never deployed, been in combat, or commanded troops, in fact I would dare say that when I saw her I had much more experience dealing with death and troops suffering from PTSD than she did. I’m pretty sure that when I told her I didn’t want to do therapy with her I told her that, perhaps she was offended that a non-physician would tell her that, but I tend to tell the truth, and call things the way that I see them.

So anyway, until tomorrow, or maybe since it’s after midnight, later today I wish you peace, and pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under ethics, leadership, mental health, Military, News and current events, PTSD, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy

I Don’t Have the Answers but You Might as Well Live: Thoughts on Suicide

Suicide-Hotline

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a hard article to write because it takes me back to points in my life after my return from Iraq that all I wanted to do was die and even had plans of how I would kill myself. The worst period was between 2010 and 2013 when I was stationed away from my wife Judy on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to subject my dog Molly to me not coming home, she helped save my life, as did thoughts of Judy and the friends I had at a local bar who cared for me during that time.

It wasn’t my faith or for that matter most of the people I knew in the Chaplain Corps or my former Church that kept me from it, it was a dog, my wife, and regular guys that I ate and drank with regularly: Mike and New York Mike, Walt, Eddie, Felicia, Bill, “Judge Ito”, Billy, and other regulars at Rucker Johns in Emerald Isle made sure that I lived. So did friends at Granger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina where I would drive an hour to and back to watch minor league baseball games two or three times a week: Toni and Jerry, Anne, Cara, and Negro League Hall of Fame player Carl Long. Sadly, New York Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, Cara, and Carl have all passed away since I came back to Virginia.

During those dark times I had friends including men and women that I had served with in the military or their family members kill themselves. I can visualize their faces as I write this. They ranged in age from barely twenty years old to nearly sixty, all at different stages of life and their career. Quite a few were combat vets of multiple deployments and in one case both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. They were real heroes but they defeat the figurative demons within them. I also have had a great grandfather and great uncle who afflicted with terminal cancer killed themselves.

I still struggle with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Moral Injury. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, thankfully not nearly as bad as it used to be. I still avoid most crowded places unless they are very familiar to me. I am still hyper-vigilant and on guard. I plot escape routes or have memorized what I as an unarmed person would do to neutralize a threat in a public place because I don’t plan on going down without a fight or let innocent people get killed.  I also suffer from frequent flashbacks and terrible nightmares and night terrors. I threw myself off the bed in the middle of one again Thursday night. Thankfully I didn’t get a concussion or break my nose leading to emergency room visits like happened in 2014 and 2016.

Suicide is something I try not even to think about because it takes me back to very bad times that I don’t want to experience again. At the same time when I have to deal with suicides at work or read about high profile suicides, such as those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade I feel all of the anguish that I went through during the worst times, but without any desire to kill myself, I think that is a good thing.

At the same time when I deal with or hear about a suicide my mind starts playing the them song from M*A*S*H; Suicide is Painless, which was written for the movie by the fourteen year old son of director Robert Altman. Altman wanted the song for a specific scene in the film and he wanted it to be named Suicide is Painless, he also wanted it to be the stupidest song ever written. He couldn’t wrap himself around that and his son wrote it in about 15 minutes. It’s a strange song for me. I grew up with the movie and the TV show and I started my career as a commissioned office as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army. The song was the official song of the Army Medical Department and the instrumental version was played at every graduation or function that we had. Two decades later in the trauma hall of a Navy Trauma platoon in Iraq I felt like Father Mulcahy

I have a deep sense of empathy for those who suffer from deep depression and feel that sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and god-forsakenness that often lead to suicide. When I see people who complete a suicide condemned as weak, selfish, or even worse as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment I do get angry, especially when the accusers are Christians. I believe than nobody is outside the mercy and love of God, even those who commit suicide. At the same time it is hard for me to know what to say anymore without sounding trite because I know how deeply someone has to be hurting to consider suicide, and words cannot go there, there is a profound hollowness to them. The last verse of Suicide is Painless note something that I feel when dealing with a suicide situation because I just don’t have the answers:

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied oh why ask me…

That being said I do believe that help can be found and that even in the midst of struggle people can get help and find meaning in life, and I want them to find whatever they need to help them live, thrive, and survive. I don’t believe that life is without struggle, many of my personal heroes dealt with terrible depression at various times of their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Gouverneur Warren, and T.E. Lawrence among them.

As opposed to the thought that suicide is painless, I think that the great American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker said it well, suicide is not painless, she wrote:

“Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.”

So please, if you or someone that you know are struggling with issues in life that are so bad that suicide has become an option, please reach out and get help. Getting help is worth it, I know, I wouldn’t still be here without it. As Seneca said: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

Leave a comment

Filed under faith, film, life, mental health, Military, ministry, News and current events, PTSD, suicide

No Shutting Up Until it is Fixed: Veteran and Military Mental Health Care

tom-clancy-look-2

“If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” Col David Hackworth

Over the past couple of weeks I discovered just how mentally and emotionally fragile I still am. As those that follow my writings here know I wrote a couple of articles recently about the treatment that I was receiving at the local Naval Medical Center, and my perceptions of that command. Those, as well as the e-mails to my provider, which were then shared by the person in charge of fixing the problem with the Medical Center Executive Officer without my permission, (I think there is another violation of my HIPPA rights there as well)  were very difficult to write.

They were extremely painful because of the emotions that were unleashed, especially because I thought of doing something that scared me to death. I considered, very briefly in my pain, anger and my sense that the system had betrayed me and for that matter all of us seeking help; the possibility of committing suicide, in a very public and dramatic way. It scared the hell out of me that I developed a perfectly executable plan to do it, a plan that for a moment would have drawn attention to the issue, but at the same time would have traumatized many others.

Of course I do not think I would ever do it. The death of Robin Williams by suicide yesterday shattered me, and no matter how bad things are I wouldn’t want my death to cause distress to anyone. Frankly, I love life too much, and God knows that one more dead body won’t change how the military or the Veteran Administration medical systems treat people in crisis.

However a living person, especially a pain in the ass like me, that won’t stop speaking out just might make a difference. That might take a while to do, but I will do it until war, and the indifference of soulless bureaucracies are  no more. That may be unreasonable, unrealistic and unattainable but it is a windmill worth tilting at.

But I fully understand that people in a moment of madness and despair, would make the choice to end their life, and see as it as a perfectly logical and rational act. I have known senior chaplain colleagues and former commanders who have chosen suicide, and I am sure that none of them thought that they would ever make that choice, until they actually did it. Please don’t worry about me. I am not going to kill myself, the thought scares me too much. Honestly I would rather live to a ripe old age and be a thorn in the side of the system to get veterans the care that they deserve, and the care that this country owes them than to be yet another statistic whose death is swept under the rug as quickly as the system can do it. Unfortunately, that is the reality; any bureaucratic system, military, government or the private sector will go on with as little inconvenience and reflection as is required once the body is disposed of properly.

Just a few months ago I was talking about simple teaching history, religion and ethics at local junior colleges and for profit universities “for the beer money” as I joked with friends. I told people that my desire when I retire was to be like LT Weinberg in the classic movie A Few Good Men and “have absolutely no responsibility here.” The fact is that I am tired and I don’t want to be in charge of anything when I retire, either in the military, civilian or church world. What T.E. Lawrence wrote to a friend shortly before his death in 1935 resonates with me:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That being said, I want whatever amount of time left on this earth, and hopefully it is a very, very long time, is to make a difference in the lives of the men and women who have served in the military and who come home broken, in mind, body and spirit. I can think of no other option or higher calling at this point. To that end I have been referred to a therapist in the system, but not at the Naval Medical Center. The therapist was highly recommended by a chaplain friend who has also went through some very difficult times, even in trying to get help for himself. Thankfully, the person who I talked to a week ago agreed to the referral. So I will get help for me, something that I need and go into with a positive attitude based on my friend’s recommendation.

Now those who have never walked the dark path of long lasting, abiding clinical depression or other mental illness may not understand what I am talking about, but those that have walked this terrible path know it all too well. The feeling that no one cares and that you are alone is a major factor in the despair that overwhelms people, and acts as a trigger to suicide.  Unfortunately far too many military personnel and veterans reach that point. The numbers are staggering. No wonder that Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war, or the “bill” as he calls it: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations…”

There are a number of ways that I could do this. I could go to work for the VA as a Chaplain, or I could go get a degree in counseling and do therapy or any number of other venues. But I think I would be limited by having to serve in ossified bureaucracies if I was to do any of those things.

Thus I am probably going to venture into the world of social activism, working with veterans organizations, political leaders and the media to draw attention to what is happening to veterans that seek care. Veterans like me who perceive that the system doesn’t really care about them, many individual providers may care deeply and deliver wonderful care, but the system itself is soulless and seems often to be clueless. Likewise I will work to expose the war profiteers who seek to cut back medical and mental health care for veterans even more and actively lobby the military, and Congress to enact those cuts. Personally I feel that is immoral and unjust and that it needs to be confronted and exposed.

I wish I could say that things were any better in the civilian mental health system, but they are not. My wife has battled and suffered from severe depression almost all of her life, and over the past 20 years what is paid for by insurance companies for people in crisis has shrunk to a pathetic “system” whereby a person that is hospitalized remains in hospital 2-5 days until they assure they providers that they will not kill themselves. There is no continuity of care, there is little or no therapy or medication management, it is simply warehousing. I’d like to take that on too, but I have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with where I am.

quioxte

I am a dreamer, and I don’t mind tilting at windmills. Lawrence wrote: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

I am a dangerous dreamer because as Lawrence noted I will act on my dreams with open eyes. I may not be able to do a lot while I am still on active duty, but when I retire I will be very dangerous because I know far too much and I won’t be afraid to speak out. My heroes include men like Major General Smedley Butler and Colonel David Hackworth and I have no inhibitions at following in their footsteps. I am very determined, persistent and I can be a total ass. When I determine to do something I don’t quit.

As Colonel Hackworth, who I had the honor of corresponding with in the years before he died said: “If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” The way we are treating our veterans is just that and I won’t shut my mouth until the day that I die, which Lord willing won’t be anytime soon.

Pray for me, I do need it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

3 Comments

Filed under healthcare, leadership, mental health, Military

Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

barmherzigkeit

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion

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

A Weekend of Old Navy Movies: Mister Roberts, The Caine Mutiny and In Harm’s Way

Well I have the duty pager for the hospital this weekend so I have been hanging out at the Island Hermitage with my dog Molly watching classic Navy movies.

Friday night I watched the classic film Mister Roberts. Yesterday I watched In Harm’s Way and The Caine Mutiny.

All three films are fictional and because of that I find them great for understanding the complexity of Navy life and leadership.  Mister Roberts and the Caine Mutiny the films deal with the complexities of life and leadership on small and rather insignificant ships while In Harm’s Way deals with more senior officers and their lives. All three deal with subjects that are uncomfortable because they still exist not just in the Navy but throughout the military. Thus all three offer insights into toxic leaders, poor morale, discipline, mental illness, alcoholism and subjects such as sexual assault and suicide.

Mister Roberts stared Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell. It is set on the USS Reluctant a Light Cargo Ship in the backwaters of the Pacific in the closing months of the Second World War. Released in 1955 the film was based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Thomas Heggen.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/323485/Mister-Roberts-Movie-Clip-Up-All-Night.html

Cagney plays a despotic former Merchant Marine Captain, LCDR Morton an officer of the type that the Navy did not want portrayed on film then, and still doesn’t today.  He is petty, self serving and rules as a tyrant in order to secure his promotion to Commander. His prize possession is a palm tree which was awarded to the ship for handling the most cargo which he believes will be his ticket to promotion. Lemon plays the ship’s Laundry and Morale Officer Ensign Frank Pulver who creatively finds ways of avoiding work. He is so successful that Captain Morton doesn’t know who he is despite having been on the ship 14 months. Pulver provides amusement and aggravation to Henry Fonda plays the ship’s Cargo Officer LTJG Doug Roberts. Roberts is liked by the crew and always in conflict with hs captain.  He is desperate to be transferred off the Reluctant and serve on a ship on the front lines. He fears that the war will pass him by and sends in letter after letter to get transferred to a fighting ship only to have Morton send them on without recommending approval.

Roberts is caught in the position of many young leaders where they are torn between their duty and their loyalty to their crew.  Eventually he  William Powell in his last film plays ship’s Medical Officer, the wise sage whose advice and counsel is invaluable to Roberts.  Eventually Roberts gets off the ship because the crew forges a request for transfer along with a forged recommendation from the Captain. When he leaves the ship the crew presents him with their “Medal” the “Order of the Palm.” He is transferred to a destroyer and is killed in action. His final letter to Ensign Pulver tells of his appreciation for the crew and comes along with a letter from a friend of Pulver’s on board the destroyer Roberts was transferred telling of Roberts being killed when the ship was hit by a kamikaze.

In the letter Roberts expresses that he finally understood the enemy faced by those in rear areas and all of those that cannot see why they matter or know their place in a war.  The challenge of leaders to understand “that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide.”  He finally after having seen combat that those that he served with on the Reluctant “Right now I’m looking at something that’s hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I’ve ever seen. I’d rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I’ll always be proudest of: That at a time in the world when courage counted most I lived among 62 brave men.” 

The Caine Mutiny adapted from the novel written by Herman Wouk deals with a another ship where leadership challenges abound. The Captain of the ship, LCDR Queeg played by Humphrey Bogart is plagued by doubt, fear and paranoia.  A Regular Navy Officer on with a wardroom of reservists he comes to the ship battered from two years in the Atlantic. He is also plagued by his Communications Officer, LT Tom Keefer played by Fred MacMurray who spends the time not writing a novel in spreading poison about his ship, the Navy and his commanding officers. Queeg begs for their support and understanding.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413561/Caine-Mutiny-The-Movie-Clip-Like-A-Family.html

However Keefer is so successful at undermining Queeg that in the midst of a typhoon the Executive Officer, LT Steve Maryk played by Van Johnson takes command and relieves Queeg on the bridge supported by the Officer of the deck Ensign Willie Keith.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtqf0CCVUek

Maryk is tried and acquitted at court marital but his defense attorney, LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer has to destroy Queeg on the witness stand to do it.  During the trial Keefer is called as a witness for the prosecution lies on the stand to avoid incriminating himself while damaging the case of his friend Maryk. At the end Greenwald confronts Kiefer at a party and provides the leadership lesson for a wardroom which abandoned their sick captain long before the mutiny occurred.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKeISsYKROI

[Greenwald staggers into the Caine crew’s party, inebriated] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Well, well, well! The officers of the Caine in happy celebration! 

Lt. Steve Maryk: What are you, Barney, kind of tight? 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Sure. I got a guilty conscience. I defended you, Steve, because I found the wrong man was on trial. 

[pours himself a glass of wine] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: So, I torpedoed Queeg for you. I had to torpedo him. And I feel sick about it. 

[drinks wine] 

Lt. Steve Maryk: Okay, Barney, take it easy. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You know something… When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg. 

Ensign Willie Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: He didn’t endanger anybody’s life, you did, all of you! You’re a fine bunch of officers. 

Lt. JG H. Paynter Jr.: You said yourself he cracked. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m glad you brought that up, Mr. Paynter, because that’s a very pretty point. You know, I left out one detail in the court martial. It wouldn’t have helped our case any. 

[to Maryk] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you? 

Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] Yes, we did. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: [to Paynter] You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon? 

[to Maryk] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You’re an honest man, Steve, I’m asking you. You think it would’ve been necessary for you to take over? 

Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] It probably wouldn’t have been necessary. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: [muttering slightly] Yeah. 

Ensign Willie Keith: If that’s true, then we were guilty. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Ah, you’re learning, Willie! You’re learning that you don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job or you’re no good! Well, the case is over. You’re all safe. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. 

[long pause; strides toward Keefer] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: And now we come to the man who should’ve stood trial. The Caine’s favorite author. The Shakespeare whose testimony nearly sunk us all. Tell ’em, Keefer! 

Lieutenant Tom Keefer: [stiff and overcome with guilt] No, you go ahead. You’re telling it better. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg! 

Lt. Steve Maryk: Let’s forget it, Barney! 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Queeg was sick, he couldn’t help himself. But you, you’re *real* healthy. Only you didn’t have one tenth the guts that he had. 

Lieutenant Tom Keefer: Except I never fooled myself, Mr. Greenwald. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m gonna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer. 

[pours wine in a glass] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: From the beginning you hated the Navy. And then you thought up this whole idea. And you managed to keep your skirts nice, and starched, and clean, even in the court martial. Steve Maryk will always be remembered as a mutineer. But you, you’ll publish your novel, you’ll make a million bucks, you’ll marry a big movie star, and for the rest of your life you’ll live with your conscience, if you have any. Now here’s to the *real* author of “The Caine Mutiny.” Here’s to you, Mr. Keefer. 

[splashes wine in Keefer’s face] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: If you wanna do anything about it, I’ll be outside. I’m a lot drunker than you are, so it’ll be a fair fight. 

In Harm’s Way was filmed a decade after the Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts. Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith and Tom Tryon it was a epic that was panned by critics as having a shallow plot. It involved the intersecting lives of a number of officers during the war with John Wayne playing Rear Admiral “Rock” Torrey. Although the plot is relatively shallow the film brings up several very serious subjects that are faced by leaders even today.  The topics of alcoholism, sexual assault and suicide are touched upon through the character played by Kirk Douglas, Captain Paul Eddington.  Eddington is plagued by alcoholism and a failed marriage that ended when his wife was killed while with an Army Air Corps Officer on the morning of the Peal Harbor attack.  Sentenced to a backwater assignment he is called to be Torrey’s Chief of Staff.  In that position he ends up raping a nurse played by Jill Howarth that happens to be the fiancee of Torrey’s son. She then commits suicide. When Eddington discovers that she is dead he sets off on a suicide mission to find the Japanese fleet.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/348030/In-Harm-s-Way-Movie-Clip-The-Navy-s-Never-Wrong.html

The questions raised in the film are not answered, there is no Barney Greenwald to point out the moral of the story.  John Wayne plays a flawed hero surrounded by characters of that are all in some way dealing with their own personal demons. However the questions are those that have been faced by military leaders for generations.  How does a leader deal with men and women in failing marriages? How does one deal with those that simply are advancing their own careers? How does a leader deal with key staff that are dealing with alcoholism? How does one prevent sexual assault in a combat area and prevent suicide?  The truth is that we still deal with all of these questions and none of us or any military in the world has solved any of them.  Perhaps Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz sums up the situation that we still face “Well, we all know the Navy’s never wrong. But in this case, it was a little weak on bein’ right.”

Taken as a whole the three films all are valuable for today’s naval leader as well as military leaders in general. The I do learn something new every time that I watch them and all challenge me to be a better leader.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under film, leadership, Military, movies, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Thoughts on Smoke, Suicides, Gracie Jane, the Media Legal System and I guess I’m not Patriotic

Gracie Jane…the Boston Legal Nancy Grace

Today was one of those weird days. I got up relatively early for a day off only to have my morning interrupted by a page from the Emergency Room to deal with a suicide. I showered and drove in to work knowing what the outcome was going to be even though our staff was trying heroically to save the patient.  On the way in I was reminded of Iraq once again as I drove through the dense smoke which has enshrouded our region from one of several wild fires.

Last night I had been out watching the Independence Day fireworks with Judy and our little dog Molly on the beach about a quarter of a mile from the Island Hermitage and I did pretty wel`l, though Molly did better. While I was occasionally flashing back to watching artillery and illumination rounds and hearing that infernal 122 rocket flying over me in Baghdad as well as being nervous in the large crowds that surrounded me I didn’t melt down despite some very close blasts from individuals firing some pretty large firework charges above our heads. Maybe it was the unflappable attitude of Molly. Molly isn’t afraid of anything and maybe her looking up and occasionally barking at the infernal things both comforted and amused me. However I digress….

I got to the ER sustained by a large cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee and found that our staff could not save the life of the individual. I have dealt with far too many suicides in the military where it seems to be epidemic now days as well as in my time as an ER and Trauma department Chaplain in major civilian medical centers. There are people that condemn those that commit suicide to hell and call it an “unpardonable sin.” I can’t do that. Suicide is a tragedy no matter when it happens and it is happening far too often among the ranks of our Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard forces and to those retired or discharged from the military.  I spent some time and with our staff as well as some of his senior enlisted leaders who were obviously affected by this and quietly said a prayer of commendation at the bedside.  This is a tragedy one that will unfortunately keep occurring even as Congress contemplates cuts to the force that include the Mental Health Professionals and Chaplains that are the last line of defense for these young men and women.  But then what value are the lives of the men and women that fight our wars compared to not raising the taxes for the incredible wealthy that profit off of our wars and the sacrifices of the troops.

When I got home Judy and I took a drive up to Beaufort North Carolina where we had lunch at Finz, a bar and grill. As always we sat in the bar and while eating lunch noticed a commotion. A waitress from the restaurant side rushed in and changed the channel from the peaceful natural disasters reported by the Weather Channel to Headline News where Gracie Jane (Nancy Grace, Gracie Jane is the caricature Nancy created by the writers of Boston Legal played with gusto by Jill Brennan) was having a conniption fit that Casey Anthony was found not guilty of killing her daughter in one of the most sensational trials since the O. J. Simpson trial.

Now I didn’t watch the trial my faith in the Media Legal system having been crushed with the failure of the O. J. jury to find him guilty and order him crushed to death with heavy stones. But evidently some jury in Florida where convicting someone of murder and having them put to death is a spectator sport failed to convict, something about reasonable doubt. It sounds to me that in such and environment that the prosecutors must have pulled a Marcia Clarke and botched the prosecution.  They should have petitioned to have the trial moved to Texas where they could have gotten the conviction and the death penalty. Even President Bush who never pardoned anyone as Governor couldn’t save the lady convicted of drowning her kids when she said she had repented when a jury convicted her of capital murder.

However, my friends as terrible as the verdict sounds as it seems justice has been denied, someone probably killed that little girl and will get away with it, the reaction of Gracie Jane was priceless as she was nearly apoplectic even saying that Satan must be having a “party in Hell” and that proving “reasonable doubt” an unfair burden to prosecutors.   But that is the way the Media Legal system works, Greta, Geraldo, Court TV and Gracie Jane, they thrive on trying these cases in the media and while our justice system is certainly imperfect and sometimes even insane ever person is due their day in court and it is the responsibility of prosecutors to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. These prosecutors had no direct evidence of the lady killing her daughter.  They had lots of circumstantial evidence even some pretty damning stuff from what Gracie Jane tells me but they couldn’t get a conviction. When I took a class in Military Law we were advised that if we didn’t believe that we could make the charges stick at a General Courts Martial in from of a judge and jury that it was inadvisable to charge soldiers with a crime, even if we were trying the case as a “non-judicial” case under Article 15 of the UCMJ. As a company commander I never lost because I made sure that if I charged someone that the evidence would prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  These guys didn’t. They lost to better defense attorneys and someone got away with murder, manslaughter or child abuse. But the Media Legal system will never admit that they could be wrong in convicting people before a jury even gets the case. It’s a pity that Lincoln Meyer (a peeping Tom murderer played in a most creepy manner by David Dean Bottrell) couldn’t come up and clunk her on the head with a shovel like in Boston Legal).

Finally I ran afoul of a Tea Party partisan yesterday when I mentioned in his extended quote from the Declaration of Independence about removing despots and the right of people to revolt he cut off the quote where the Declaration says “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” For this I was called everything but a Democrat, you’d think that I had spurned God and man for mentioning this. Instead the man and one of his friends set out to mock me as some kind of Constitution stomping, CNN and MSNBC watching infidel for my cautious and even distrustful views views in regard to the Tea Party movement and some of its leaders.  Of course when picked their arguments apart I got called more names was told that they were “Constitutionalists” and kept trying to shut me up. I had too much fun finally getting one to end his insulting comments aimed at me with “God Bless the USA!” Unfortunately when the phase is used to end an argument, insult the honor, integrity and intellectual honesty and question the patriotism of a fellow American it resonates about as well with me as much as “Heil Hitler!” did to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Evidently even though I have served the country in the military in peace and war the past 30 years including in combat I am less of a patriot than him or anyone else in the Tea Party.  Despite my personal victory today I fear for the worst when this man and others like him come to power. Dissent will be crushed as they use laws that they currently decry to punish their opponents or critics. Those that joined the movement out of legitimate frustration at the mess that Republicans and Democrats alike as well as most powerful supporters have made of this country will be sorely disappointed when they find that they are considered expendable to those that they put their trust in to deliver the country.

I personally find the often violent language and imagery used so flippantly by many the leaders of the Tea Party to be frightening. The use of such terms as evil, satanic, communist, Marxist or Fascist to characterize those that disagree with you is dangerous for it dehumanizes the other and appeals to the basest forms of human behavior.  The fact that some senior state organizers have links intellectual and economic to white supremacist groups and anti-government “militia” groups makes me even more nervous as do the unstated motivations of some of the principal financial backers the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.  Contrary to what some believe this movement is not a movement of uneducated bumpkins to be trifled with. The Tea Party has money, media and power at its disposal it is not to be taken lightly even when its leaders make mistake after mistake concerning American history and the Constitution.

But it seems that none of them really studies history and that we have failed in teaching our people to learn from history, not the mythology that makes us feel good and warms our patriotic hearts. But according to the gentleman I must not have one of those. Oh well… God Bless the USA!

Well that’s all for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under ER's and Trauma, faith, leadership, Lies of World Net Daily, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Political Commentary, PTSD, purely humorous