Although the U.S. military's presence in Afghanistan is winding down, with combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2014, suicides in the U.S. military have risen sharply this year. In the first 155 days of 2012, 154 service members have killed themselves, a rise of 18% over last year. These numbers mean 50% more troops committed suicide than were killed in Afghanistan. In a memo to Pentagon officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described military suicides as “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Defense Department.
The official figures only cover active service members, not those who've returned home or non-mobilized National Guard or Reserve members.
Studies into the phenomenon point to several factors: post-traumatic stress disorder, exposure to combat conditions, multiple tours of duty, financial problems and worries about readjusting to civilian life. Elspeth Ritchie, a retired Army colonel and chief psychiatric adviser to the Army surgeon general, points to two major factors: “The high [operations tempo] of deployed units, which means that leaders do not really know their soldiers; and the easy availability of firearms, the ‘gun in the nightstand,’ which, unfortunately, leads to too many impulsive suicides, and occasionally homicides.”
All four services have brought in systems to help depressed or suicidal members. Troops are encouraged to seek help, but some see doing so as an admittance of weakness and a possible block to advancement. In May 2005, Marine Major John Ruocco hanged himself between tours of duty. His widow said he was unable to bring himself to go for help. “He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it,” she said.
Q: What can be done to lower the instances of military suicides?
The reasons for suicide may be complex and vary widely from case to case, but without doubt one of the greatest preventatives is the presence of hope in a struggling person’s life.
Our troops need the hope that comes from knowing they’re not the only ones who feel the way they do. Open, uncritical discussion about the problem is one way to connect soldiers with the help they need. The Bible tells us to “encourage one another, and build up one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and to “bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Our soldiers need to be made confident that seeking help won’t result in hindering their military career. Improved health, whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, makes a stronger soldier.
The greatest source of hope is a bit controversial, but nevertheless remains the greatest: “Christ Jesus ... is our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1). Romans 10:11 assures us that “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” David the warrior-king sang: “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.” (Psalm 62:5). Even Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” found hope in the Lord: “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23). Jesus Christ is the ultimate answer for hopeless people.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
How about stopping all wars now? Such an approach may sound naive, but 10 or 12 years of war haven't seemed to improve anything, if you think about it. And let's go back to our last conflict, Vietnam. Are we better off now that we fought the Viet Cong or not? I'd say it's a draw.
Those of you who served or who are serving now, I have the utmost respect for your sacrifice; my argument isn't with you. However, I am furious with the policy makers who assume that war is inevitable and who always seem to be planning for the next war. How about if we think about not having the next war?
I'm glad we got Osama bin Laden, and we need to have good intelligence that pertains to protecting our shores. But this sending of our young men and women thousands of miles away — and deploying them more than once — for an elusive objective.... Why are we there, again?
Maybe the suicides are telling us something, too, like it's better to be dead than to keep on killing and killing and killing and killing. Stop the wars, President Obama. Enough blood has been spilled, both theirs and ours.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
I have nothing wise to say about this. The limits of my pastoral expertise here are to recognize a situation where wise words and reassurances from faith are at least inadequate, maybe even ridiculous. That more soldiers have died in this war by their own hand than in combat — this is a stunning truth, before which to fall silent.
I’m thinking of my friend, whose son has been stationed in Afghanistan. We’ve all followed her son’s tour, through her Facebook posts, for several years. We’ve sent care packages to his unit when they couldn’t be supplied; we’ve offered prayers of grief when someone he knew was killed; we’ve held our breath with her through every proud, trying-so-hard-not-to-be-terrified maternal post. And now we’re rejoicing with her, as he’s being sent home, following each step of that journey, as flight by flight, he gets safer and safer.
I cannot imagine, I cannot imagine, what it would be for her, if upon his return to home and safety, he were to take his own life. What a cruelty that would be, to let her take her first full mother’s breath in years, only to lose him to his own psychological tragedy. Really, I don’t have a name for what that wound would be for her, forever.
Maybe these statistics are just telling us that combat, thank God, has gotten safer; we’ve gotten better at protecting our own as they go into battle. Even if that’s true though, it’s just as inadequate and ridiculous a reassurance as any attempt I could make to respond with words of faith. The bottom line is that these losses of life are truly and particularly sad.
Let us, before we rush to analyze and give useless advice, let’s all just take a moment here, and feel deeply sad, for these crushed souls, and the families who will mourn them forever.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
Well, I think it behooves the Brass to show some brass, and address the issue with utmost concern and intelligence, and recognize that their soldiers are not acting childish, as reports clearly indicate is some officers’ opinion. What's happening is so unnatural and contrary to self-preservation that it needs to be addressed like one would deal with poison gas, jungle disease or shrapnel wounds.
Advise the various service branches of the tremendous possibility of being overcome with “combat collapse,” and make every effort to get those with even the remotest symptoms to run, not walk, to the nearest infirmary. If they know to don a mask amid toxic fumes, and how to slam an injector needle into their thigh as antidote; if they know to make a tourniquet to stop bleeding, and to consume inedible grubs to survive, why is not a psych-attack also prepared for? This is certainly a matter of the soul, and whatever odd circumstances lead to this internal civil war, it needs addressing with the strength of the entire military command.
Warrior machismo notwithstanding, if GI’s find themselves in that dark place calling for self-annihilation, I think something is seriously missing in both their preparation and preservation when their only perceived honorable option is suicide. Perhaps it cannot be foreknown, but isn’t that what training is about, getting expectant about the unexpected?
There is no reason a soldier should shoot him or herself to death as a casualty of career. Military duty does require unusual and unsettling behavior, as most people do not kill others in their normal day, but even this should not lead to any turning a weapon on themselves. This may be the historic opportunity for chaplains, psych doctors and military chiefs to work together and solve a blight plaguing all the militaries of the world, and to provide something that could trickle down to curb exponentially more civilian cases.
Soldiers choose a deadly life for themselves, but as their beneficiaries, let’s do all we can to minimize threats to their safety. God save our troops!
Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
I credit this answer to an L.A. Times reader's brilliant and moving letter to the editor a year or so ago.
She commented on an article about the extensive medical treatments and therapy needed by too many troops returning from Iraq with grave injuries, and the huge obstacles they struggle with, often with no or overstretched help from families. She said that everyone who supported our invasion of Iraq ought to personally help an injured soldier or veteran — rides to appointments, phone calls to agencies or doctors, help with daily activities, etc.
Extending her inspired idea, I suggest adding the aid and comfort of a service person and their family facing any potential for suicide to the volunteer's list. Expenses of training and administration will be provided by corporations profiting from the wars.
Ending military suicides will be involved and expensive, if that is what Secretary Panetta means by “complex.” But causes, clearly summarized in our question, are not hard to figure out.
Of course the root cause is the insane wars themselves. One was based on lies, and the commander-in-chief: 1) told us our only duty was to go shopping, and 2) lowered taxes on the wealthy, reducing funds available for troop care. The other still goes on, needlessly, our objectives either already met or unobtainable militarily. It makes me crazy, without combat service.
Back to our plan, avid cyclist Bush can help a vet learn to ride again, or to cope with the mental anguish of immobility. Serial draft-dodger Cheney I think should dedicate himself to the personal care of a vet who will never use the toilet again without help. And on down the chain of command to every last citizen who thought, or worse still thinks, these wars are a good idea. Congress members who decry the war in Afghanistan but keep funding it will of course want to do double shifts.
These statistics break my heart. Panetta thinks that the problem is complex, but the answer seems obvious: To lower the number of military suicides, our government could cut back on the military engagements; reduce the number of tours of duty; assist more fully in the adjustment to civilian life; adjust incentives in the VA system so that full mental healthcare is offered to our veterans; and enact stricter gun control laws.
We could decide together that the physical, mental and spiritual health of our young people has value, and that they are worth more to us as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters than as soldiers in endless, unwinnable wars.
In an alarming book titled “The War Comes Home,” veteran Aaron Glantz details the extent to which our own Veteran’s Administration system fails our returning soldiers. The system is overloaded, with benefits coordinators rewarded for the number of claims settled, not the number of veterans healed and made whole again.
Even with Obama’s 2009 increase in VA funds, we’re still looking at something like 1.3 million out of 2-million-plus soldiers eligible for VA care. By June 2011, about 700,000 (53%) had sought healthcare from the VA, more than half of them for mental health care (Nov. 16, 2011, Eric Newhouse, truth-out.org).
We should not be surprised by this heartbreak. God created us for life and for love. Our souls were not divinely crafted for the work of killing one another. Yet we ask this of our soldiers. And while we may veil the work as “mission” and “duty” and cloak it in glory, our soldiers wake in the night to find such cover to be insufficient protection from the demons of fear, conscience, pain and memory.
We cannot be surprised to find that souls crack from the pressure. May God bless all those who seek healing and the healers who reach out to them. May God have mercy on us all.
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church
The dramatic increase in the number of men and women in uniform who are taking their own lives is tragic, and I believe the U.S. military must spearhead a serious program to reduce this devastating suicide rate.
Several years ago, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were wreaking havoc on our servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing hundreds and injuring many more. In response, the military dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to new armaments, intelligence and counter-measures to mitigate this dangerous threat. I feel that the Pentagon should spend at least as much money and effort to diminish the rising threat of suicide, which is now claiming as many lives — if not more — than the IEDs.
Generally speaking, there is a two-step approach when faced with a suicide threat. The first step is to distract the person's mind from the issue at hand, and divert his or her attention to something entirely different.
The hope is that if distracted, we will avoid the immediate risk of personal harm or death. Then we can start to effectively address the individual's underlying thoughts and move them toward the next step, which is reclaiming a more balanced sense of hope and optimism. When a human being is distracted long enough from his or her immediate pain and distress, they can be convinced that there is so much worth living for, and the chances of avoiding suicide improve.
I feel that our Armed Forces should adopt a comprehensive approach to address this trend. They need to expand the counseling services available to those currently in the field on active duty, and try to reduce any stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues. And they need to realize that many warriors returning home need serious and sustained assistance — psychologically, physically and spiritually — in integrating back into society. They should organize regular schedules of activity to provide adequate distraction from the inevitable anxiety that plague soldiers returning from a campaign, as well as comprehensive medical treatment for issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
All members of our military should be assured that a grateful nation will help them find jobs and situate them properly for the future so that there is hope for them, their wives and children. I believe that clergy and religious institutions across the country ought to redouble their efforts to reach out to our returning heroes to offer them hope, optimism and faith. We have an obligation to help them weather the difficulties they face today, and reassure them that there is a much brighter tomorrow.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
Military culture must change to acknowledge the value of counseling and psychiatric treatment, for personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress.
I haven't served in the military. My primary reference point is conversations with my father, who saw extensive combat in World War II. He appeared to have dealt with the things he saw and did without serious difficulty, as did many of his generation. However, there were significant differences in the war he experienced and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, and troops have been fighting in Iraq for almost nine years. In both countries, our forces have served largely as an army of occupation with no front line separating them from their adversaries.
U.S. involvement in World War II lasted less than four years. Although it was a conflict of terrible intensity, progress could be measured as the Allies advanced across Europe and the Pacific. Their mission was clear, their victory decisive, and the survivors returned home as heroes. Those factors, I believe, made those veterans them less vulnerable to the emotional and mental disorders that have afflicted so many those who have served in the current conflicts.
I believe that for people of faith, religion can help ease the emotional distress created by traumatic experience. I also believe that professional help is necessary, particularly in cases of severe, prolonged stress like that experienced by military personnel. The prospect that men and women may continue to struggle with post-traumatic stress for years after the wind-down is over makes it all the more urgent that the military foster a culture of acceptance for those who need help.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Knowing who might attempt to take their own life is extremely difficult. There are signs, but listening well enough to hear those signs requires focus and care. The “can do” attitude in military and civilian life may contribute to the difficulty of people finding help when they need it. Many people feel that asking for help with feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide shows weakness and will result in more trouble instead of help.
Leaders often send the message that everybody should be able to handle all their problems themselves, and asking for help is a bad sign. The military might benefit by training members to look at the act of seeking aid in preventing suicide as a positive trait. People need to see the step of asking for assistance as helpful for the service and everyone.
When we offer assistance, we should not downplay the worries of the individual, and avoid telling them they are exaggerating or that everything will be OK. We should accept that the future looks bleak to them, even though things appear differently to us.
Some efforts that might begin to reduce the numbers of self inflicted injuries in military service include, improved listening, changing the military culture around asking for aid, and training members and support staff in best techniques of response to aid potentially suicidal individuals.
South Pasadena Atheist Meetup