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Military Suicide is at an All-Time High

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Tragically, the Marine Corps and the Army released their reports on suicide for 2011, and we’ve learned that among Marines, suicide attempts are higher than they’ve ever been, and in the Army, more soldiers have taken their own lives than in any year previously.

It is a matter of deep regret and burning shame for America’s armed forces that so many of our young men and women who have pledged their lives to the service of their country are instead choosing to end their lives prematurely.  There are many reasons:  Operational tempo, stress from deployments, a failure to adapt to the military, and sometimes, simple depression that went unnoticed and untreated, and developed into an illness that drove someone to the ultimate act of self-destruction.

Oftentimes, especially for combat veterans, the reason is a deep sense of isolation:  They think that no one can possibly understand what they’ve been through, and in their immediate sphere, they’re not incorrect:  Their family members, their spouses, and even many of their friends who have not deployed, or whose deployments were not as intense or dangerous, can’t fully relate to the inexplicable emotions and feelings that ride along with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  For others, it’s the stress or loneliness of the holidays, and an inability to cope with the specific depression that accompanies the days leading up to Thanksgiving through the New Year.  Nearly a quarter of the Marines who attempted suicide in 2011 did so during the holiday season.  And all too often, suicide – or the attempt thereof – is undertaken while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

All of this has happened even though the military has drastically stepped up their suicide prevention efforts.  In the Marine Corps, there is now a detailed annual training module for leaders as low as E-4 and E-5, to teach the Corps’ non-commissioned officers, who are usually closest with junior Marines, how to spot the signs that someone is thinking of ending their lives, the right ways to intervene, and where help is available for people troubled with the dark thoughts of suicide.  The Army has stepped up not only its suicide prevention efforts with an expansion of services, but has also galvanized its alcohol and drug treatment programs in an effort to stem the tide of soldiers taking their lives while under the influence.

So why are record numbers of Marines and soldiers attempting – and too often succeeding – in ending their lives?

In the article linked to above, the outgoing Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, General Peter Chiarelli, says that it’s the stress of multiple combat deployments.  But there was a part of the article I found jaw-droppingly egregious:

Asked if he was frustrated by the jump last year in suicide by active-duty soldiers, General Chiarelli said no.

“The question you have to ask yourself, and this is the number that no one can prove, what would it have been if we had not focused the efforts that we focused on it?” he said. He said that “for all practical purposes, for the last two to three years, it has leveled off.”

Forgive me if I read that wrong, but it appears to me that the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army is not frustrated by the fact that almost two hundred of his soldiers killed themselves last year.  When he says, “What would it have been if we had not focused the efforts that we focused on it…” what it sounds like to me is, “What do you want from me?  We tried.”

General, here’s my question for you:  If you are really trying everything you can to help soldiers who are grappling with mental issues and suicidal thoughts, but they are still killing themselves at record levels, how the hell do you sleep at night?  Is there really any stone left unturned?  Any effort not made?  Any dollar not begged for from Congress to expand training and support and programming and engagement?  It’s getting worse, sir!  Not better!  Worse!  Do you really want some kind of credit for “focusing efforts” on a problem that has “leveled off” at the highest level in the history of this nation?

Let me tell you what I would do if I were the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff for the day, and there was a threat that was killing hundreds of service personnel every year, and every year it killed more and more of them.  I would throw absolutely everything I had at that threat.  I would declare war on it, just like America would do to any other threat that was this drastic.  There is no expense to be spared when saving the lives of a squad who is pinned down in a combat zone.  There can be none spared when saving the lives of individuals who are troubled back in garrison.

The programs are there and the support is there.  But reaching the troops has proved to be incredibly difficult for the top brass and the folks who are behind the well-meaning efforts to reach troubled souls.  Too many soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen simply don’t know that there is help available to them, that it is confidential and that it will have no impact on their career whatsoever.  They don’t know what their options are.  They don’t know that there are people out there that really do understand what they are going through – and that care about them deeply, and want to help.  They hear about these programs once a year, maybe, in classes; they hear things mentioned about MilitaryOneSource; they hear things mentioned about the chaplain; they hear things mentioned about their chain of command, or their ability to Request Mast, or any of a million options.  But when the time comes, and they’re drunk and upset, they don’t remember.  They don’t remember, or they don’t care, or they don’t have a phone number, or they can’t see how anyone could possible help them.  And then another warrior is taken from our ranks, by their own hand, and we are indescribably poorer because of their absence.

Every single service member should have the information that they need tattooed on their heart:  As every Marine can repeat to you the Rifleman’s Creed, or the characteristics of an M-16A4 service rifle, or his or her chain of command – even fifty years after they leave the Corps – they should be able to rattle off ten sources of help and support that they can get if they’re in trouble, or they’re thinking dark thoughts, or they’re struggling with addiction.  How can this not be among our highest priorities?  How can we not be waging war with every weapon imaginable against the threat of suicide?

Unfortunately, the recruit training centers around the nation aren’t going to adopt my proposals tomorrow.  And because the armed services are going to keep treating suicide as something that mere bureaucracy and passive, programmatic engagement can alleviate – because they somehow believe that they’re doing a good job at preventing it – in 2012, hundreds of service members will likely take their lives.  They’ll take their lives because it’ll never occur to them that they don’t need to, that there is help available for them, that they are valued and loved and needed by their country and by their superiors.

So here’s something for the interim:  Next year, every single soldier is going to be issued a smartphone.  Every Marine is going to have one shortly thereafter.  They need to make sure they have this app.  Every single smartphone needs to have the Operation Reachout App.  Every soldier and Marine needs a class on how to use it, and they need a class on suicide prevention, on how to get help, on how to help a friend who is struggling with it.  If you’ve got a smartphone now, get this app now; even if you’ve never thought of suicide, and couldn’t imagine it – get this app now.

And talk to your subordinates and friends.  Talk to them every month, or every day – whatever it takes!  Until there’s not another single one of our brothers and sisters who collapses under the burden of their own darkness, who gives up the hellish struggle that depression and stress and isolation has made out of their lives.

We can do better.  We must do better.  There isn’t a moment to lose.