News Details

Military suicides: an unspoken tragedy


Source: Roanoke Times
Published: Sunday 30 June, 2013

When Marine Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger, the gun misfired. Had he died that night sitting in his pickup in Kentucky, his death would have been added to the growing number of active duty military personnel who have committed suicide.

Since 2001, more than 2,700 have taken their lives. In 2012 alone, the Army reported 168 suicides; the Navy, 53; the Air Force, 56; and the Marines, 46.

While researchers list financial problems, substance abuse and spousal breakups as causes for this upsurge, in reality they are only manifestations. Most agree the real cause boils down to repeated deployment. Many have pulled three and four tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. After being in a “survival mode” for a year, it takes time to come down, and when they finally do, they find themselves again on deployment, and the cycle begins all over again.

Self-inflicted wounds prior to battle have always plagued military commanders. Since 2001, however, military men and women have taken their lives after they return home because they cannot reintegrate. Kim Ruocco, head of Tragedy Assistance for Survivors, said, “We should expect our troops to need psychological care after all we’ve asked of them.” Ruocco’s husband, a Marine Corps Major, hanged himself between Iraq deployments in early 2005. (“Grim Record: Soldier Suicides Reach new High,” Time magazine, Aug. 16, 2012.)

If re-integration is difficult for men, it is doubly so for our women soldiers. In the minority, they often feel alone. Where a man can always find a fellow soldier with whom he can relate, women find it more difficult. Too, they have issues unknown to men.

An Army veteran who served in Iraq at Abu Ghraib put it this way when I spoke with her: “How can you tell a woman who has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan what it’s like to be surrounded by men and you have to use the bathroom when there is none? Or how do you tell someone what it’s like to have your period while on patrol in the middle of the desert in full battle dress in 104 degree heat? Or, how do you report a sexual assault to a male commander who will see your complaint as a minor irritant when his main concern is readying his troops for combat?”

Mark Kaplan, professor at Portland State University and coauthor of a study on suicide risk among women in the military, sees women soldiers’ problems as serious enough for “the military to take a closer look at what women are going through.”

Multiple deployments affect military families. “Soldiers and their families are falling apart under the pressures, expectations, injuries and illnesses of years of war,” Ruocco said in the Times article. Army Col. Elspeth Ritchie, once the service’s top psychiatrist dealing with Army suicides, agreed. “After a decade of war, going from having a spouse away most of the time [to finally having him/her at home] may make things worse.”

So where are we? Military suicide researcher David Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah, speaking to the Huffington Post, said he does not expect a decline in military suicides anytime soon. “Actually, we may see increases,” he said.

Treatment centers and psychiatric counseling and support systems are in place, however, and Jackie Garrick who heads the Pentagon’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office stresses in the Times article that “our [military] people are our most valuable resource and we are very committed to taking care of them.”

Dakota Meyers was spared that dark night in Kentucky. With professional help, he has pieced his life back together. Others, too, are being helped. To date, treating centers have received more than 600,000 calls. How many of those who called were ‘talked back’? The actual number will never be known. But when we consider that of the thousands of calls treating centers receive, only a few actually take their lives, we have to give them a lot of credit. Meyers, in his book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War,” writes, “Did the PTSD clinic make a difference in my life? Yes, it did. I’m still here.”

Can we stop the military suicide epidemic? Two possible solutions are: reinstitute the draft (to broaden our manpower base and thus eliminate multiple deployments); or find an alternative to war as an industry. We must do one or the other. To continue redeploying the same men and women is unfair and underscores our having forgotten the words of President Harry S. Truman:

Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our Country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude.