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Army Suicides: The Most Alarming and Tragically Hidden Secret in America

A cursory glance at recent media reporting exposes the important issues we Americans are most concerned about – the looming presidential election, our long-suffering economic condition, the Penn State scandal and Tom and Katie’s break up. If you’re interested in our military’s involvement in Afghanistan, our successes and failures, the names of those killed, etc., then you’ll have to search more aggressively. The fact is, America’s media, and perhaps the American people, have generally lost interest in the decade-long war.

There is however one story about the war that recently made headlines. Time magazine’s July 23, 2011 cover read, “ONE A DAY: Every day, one U.S. soldier commits suicide. Why the military can't defeat its most insidious enemy," by Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs. Time’s story shared the secret; "More U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began, than those who have died during combat. The rate jumped 80% from 2004 to 2008, and while it leveled off in 2010 and 2011, it has soared 18% this year. Suicide has passed road accidents as the leading non­combat cause of death among U.S. troops.”

Compare the rate of suicide among our service members to the national average and you shouldn’t be surprised. As reported by FT.com in 2010, an internal U.S. Army report revealed “160 active duty soldiers took their lives in the 2009 fiscal year, putting the Army suicide rate at a record 20.2 per 100,000, exceeding the national average of 19.2...” And that trend isn’t new. According to a March 2011 Examiner.com story, “As of 2008, the suicide rate in the military has surpassed that of the civilian population, and it has steadily increased since that time. Before the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts began in 2001, the rate was rarely over 10 per 100,000.”

But here is the part that may surprise you. As the Time article continued, “[n] early a third of the suicides from 2005 to 2010 were among troops who had never been deployed; 43% had deployed only once. Only 8.5% had deployed three or four times.” This is of course sad and tragic. And as this information suggests, we can’t just write off these suicides as a post-traumatic stress-induced epidemic. No, there’s something else here.

There’s quite a bit of speculation as to the cause and recent rise of service member suicides. The Huffington Post reported in early July, [t] he reasons…are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems."

We’re talking about the most advanced, most capable, best trained and arguably best resourced-to-date military in the world, so why can’t this deplorable condition be fixed? What’s the Department of Defense doing about it? Again, from Time, “No program, outreach or initiative has worked against the surge in…suicides, and no one knows why nothing works. The Pentagon allocates about $2 billion -- nearly 4% of its $53 billion annual medical bill - to mental health.”    

We had a saying in the Army, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Certainly, there are plenty of numbers flying about: suicide numbers, percentages, comparisons, dollars, programs, initiatives, methods; but we’re missing something. We’re missing the measurement of culture.  How do you measure a pervasive and long-standing organizational mind-set that punishes, ridicules, discriminates, or otherwise discourages service members from asking for help, or either encouraging someone to self-refer (without attribution) to health care professionals?

The Time article quoted retired General Peter Chiarelli who believes the Defense Department is not spending enough money on mental health care for our service members (General Chiarelli was the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff and was particularly focused on service member suicides toward the end of his 40-year military career). Other senior Defense officials hold this view, both military and civilian. However, the counter-argument is more strongly held and more strongly voiced.

Take this statement by Major General Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division. In his January command blog, he wrote: "I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. 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." Full disclosure, the general also counseled soldiers to seek help in his January post, and last month he retracted -- but did not apologize -- for his remarks.

It’s this example of “Army Strong” (the Army’s official brand, so to speak) that influences service members to suffer in silence until they can no longer. They would much rather kill themselves than to be seen as weak or undesirable amongst their leaders, their peers, their subordinates, their families. I lost a very close friend to suicide, and I have contemplated it myself. There were times when I felt overwhelmed by the guilt, shame, anger and fear that came with just doing my duty. Who could ever understand and help me with that, I often wondered? Countless sleepless nights compounded by obsessive thoughts and memories days on end created a physical, mental and emotional tornado inside me. On the outside, I buried myself in my work, because I had some modicum of control there (and it was a safer, more comfortable place), but I withdrew from my family and friends. I thought that I could and should snap out of it. I drank, a lot. Peers, colleagues and even supervisors gave me a wide berth because I had the credentials of combat – a Purple Heart Medal and Combat Action Badge. I am certain there were some who knew I was suffering, but the misguided rule of addressing the stigma of “weakness” could not be broken.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write “the note” that I realized how desperate I was for help. Just writing the words to explain my actions to my wife and my children were enough to shock me into awareness and despise my own self-pity. I went to my wife who no longer was my best friend -- because she had every right not to -- and I tried to confess. Still, I couldn’t muster the courage to even admit my pain to her. Finally, the loss of a “battle buddy” to suicide hurt me more than my own ability to hurt myself, and allowed me to accept the medical and behavioral health assistance I needed. But not until the disclosure of my treatment was exposed to my chain of command, did I actually feel brave enough to admit it to others. But sure enough, my condition substantially altered my plans to remain in the military, and that fear, the fear of being cast aside held by many of our service members – combat veteran or not – drives them into the shadows and sometimes the grave.

Another old saying we had in the Army: “don’t identify a problem without offering a solution.” It’s meant to encourage critical thinking and problem solving. But for this problem of out-of-control suicides in our military, there is seemingly no “one size fits all” solution. While Time reported that "[e] enlisted service members are more likely to kill themselves than officers, and 18-to-24-year-olds more likely than older troops. [N] early 95% of cases are male. A majority is married.” There is still no discernible pattern to gender, race, rank, socio-economic condition, educational level, or familial settings. And as we’ve learned, one can place no stock in deployment history as a risk factor.

As I’ve talked to many currently serving soldiers and to multiple veterans as well, I believe the one thing that could have a chance to turn the tide is awareness and courage. Awareness of one is crucial, but it’s so hard to be objective when you’re in the middle of the storm. We need to become aware of the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and grief (not every soldier has an obvious indicator such as a DUI, domestic troubles, or financial failings). So, we must allow our loved ones, friends, co-workers, bosses, everyone within contact to tell us what we may not want to hear. And that takes courage, for them to say it, and courage for us to listen to it. With awareness and courage, we 1) may then be able to utilize the resources available to seek and sustain the appropriate assistance, and 2) change a culture.

Last thought: if our service members are killing themselves faster than the “enemy” can, then who is the real enemy?

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