Friday, September 28, 2012

Stemming the Suicide Tides

This week, all around the globe, Army installations from the United States all the way to Afghanistan pressed pause on operations in order to conduct a day of suicide training across all of all forces. Suicide has been a growing problem in the Army for a number of years, having doubled over a five year period and peaking in 2009. The Army’s response to this increasing problem has been more training, or in reality, more power point presentations often delivered by chaplains. Most units are required to do quarterly training on the subject which means that the majority of every audience has heard the finer points of these presentations, multiple times. There is no lack of awareness that suicide is an important issue which continues to impact our brothers and sisters-in-arms.

Despite the efforts that have been made, 2012 is projected to be the worst year ever for Army suicides. In mid-June, there had been a suicide for every day of the year. In July, this number peaked at thirty-eight. At this point, suicide is responsible for more deaths than any other cause, including combat and motor vehicle accidents. Though much has been “done” to stem the tide of death by suicide, these solutions have been largely ineffective.

There are many people within the Army community who are asking, “Why?” The standard answers are still being offered. For instance, some say that the Army isn’t talking about suicide enough. Though they have increased awareness of this topic, it hasn’t been sufficient to keep up with the needs that have exploded exponentially after eleven years of continual deployments on multiple fronts. The stigma associated with mental health intervention also prevents soldiers from seeking help. “Getting help” may be hailed as a courageous act, but, in actuality, the military culture depends on sustaining an emotionless vacuum. Those who have been trained to repress emotions in order to maintain composure and minimize the normative human reactions to trauma while in the heat of combat struggle to deal with these emotions once they rise again to the surface later in life. 

These, and a few others even, are important pieces of this devastating puzzle. These reasons are all cited in research. They are the ones I studied when I was a graduate student, writing papers about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, after spending a few years in the Army, I don’t think these reasons are the true, underlying issue. I think our problem actually has to do with conveying the value of human life, and ultimately convincing people one of two ends: either that they are valued and cherished or that they are dispensable. The Army knows all the right words to say, when it comes to leadership, yet anyone who has been around this organization for more than a honeymoon period, knows that many if not most struggle to live up to these words. What is espoused by leaders at the highest ranks comes across in the trenches as lip service. Leadership talks about caring about every last soldier that fills every last one of our ranks, but this talk is empty. If the well-being of soldiers was truly a priority, decisions would not be made based on the easiest and cheapest way to get the job done. Those of us, closest to the ground, are being suffocated by this hypocrisy. 

If we want to prevent more suicide in the Army, we need to start with teaching soldiers that they are valuable individuals who matter. The best way to teach is through our actions, not our words. In many ways, this is counterintuitive to the way the Army operates. On the other hand though, this concept of worth has always been a part of our organization and how we build a team. We are only ever as strong as our weakest member and therefore, we are deeply connected to each person and his or her resilience and capacity to thrive even in difficult circumstances. Part of the Soldier’s Creed, which every soldier memorizes as a part of basic training, reminds us all that we never leave a fallen comrade behind. Every life is worth fighting for. We can’t just say our creeds but, ultimately, we must make decisions with these tenants in mind. It is true that the higher one gets in a hierarchy, the harder it is to remember the realities on the ground. Yet, the future of our forces depends on it.

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