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One of America’s biggest hidden tragedies is suicide. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was a virtually forbidden topic. When I began working as a news reporter in the 1970s, I bumped into a tradition in journalism that suicides were not reported. When a Vietnam veteran in a small town I covered as a community news reporter killed himself, I didn’t know what to do with the information.

Now the lid has burst off an explosive human rights and public health issue.

“More U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan war,” Time Magazine noted in a recent front cover special report. The current military suicide rate is roughly one death per day, Time reported. Meanwhile, military veterans have been committing suicide at a furious clip, about 18 per day.

How to stop an epidemic of soldiers and veterans killing themselves in greater numbers than are dying on battlefields has baffled military leaders and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Despite crises hotlines and post-traumatic stress counseling programs, instituted in response to concerns that many soldiers have done multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has clung to its Napoleonic attitude that armies are trained for killing people, not fostering healthy citizens.

When a young recruit slit his wrists during my Army basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC in the summer of 1962, a drill sergeant screamed at our platoon that he would personally provide razor blades to anybody else who wanted to kill themselves. That hard-boiled attitude didn’t deter soldiers who decided to end it all. The next year, during my tour in Vietnam, suicide was a leading cause of death among the U.S. military expeditionary force—after aircraft crashes and guerrilla warfare firefights. Suicide continued to be a leading cause of death among Vietnam veterans for years. But it was long hidden by the lack of publically reported statistics on suicides by soldiers and veterans.  

Despite the rhetoric of concern for the welfare of soldiers by today’s military leaders, little has changed.

These days, the U.S. military is revealing it has a very big problem, based on suicide statistics that have skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, the Marine Corps is court-martialing a Marine who slit his wrists in Okinawa—a punitive action that hasn’t put a damper on the rising rate of suicides, which more than doubled in the Army since 2003 and is heading upward in all armed services this year.

Nor was the appalling rate of military suicides reversed by a blistering message from Major General Dana Pittard, a commander at Ft. Bliss, Texas, who wrote “on his official blog that he was ‘personally fed up’ with ‘absolutely selfish’ troops who kill themselves, leaving him and others to ‘clean up their mess,’” Time Magazine reported.  

Despite the towering anger and angst of military commanders, the suicide rate for veterans is ever higher. A recent state study in Nevada found that “female Nevada veterans committed suicide at more than triple the overall rate for females statewide and nearly six times the national rate for females,” KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported in March. “Nevada male veterans had a suicide rate 62 percent higher than the statewide rate for males and 152 percent higher than the national rate for males.”

However, the CBS-affiliate station’s report added, “No national statistics exist for veteran suicides, so it is impossible to compare Nevada to other states, though some studies have estimated that the suicide rate among veterans nationally is three to four times that of the general population.”

The New York Times dug deeper into national studies of veterans’ suicides and reported in April that “Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health.”

Government officials speculate that the alarming suicide rate among veterans in Nevada is due to the region’s high unemployment. Yet that doesn’t explain why other folks also facing a grim and long-lasting drought in jobs but didn’t serve in the military don’t kill themselves at a similarly high rate.    

Among the worrisome statistics now available is that the majority who killed themselves while on active duty were not in combat. This suggests that U.S. military culture is a big part of the problem, regardless of where one serves. The military attitude is that the solution to international disputes is to whip the troops to continuously train for, supply equipment for, transport and wage endless war in numerous places around the world. Surely this is depleting the ability to cope among a great many exhausted soldiers, whose complaints are ignored.

Wartime military culture drums into soldiers, from cooks and mechanics to front-line grunts, that the solution to seemingly intractable problems is to shoot or blow something up and kill somebody. Is it any wonder that so many soldiers who kill themselves shoot themselves?

According to Time Magazine’s report, the majority of suicides are committed by enlisted men, whose problems are often attributed by the military to be personal. In the military hierarchy, enlisted men have little voice to speak up for themselves. In a case highlighted by Time, however, the wife of an Army doctor was brushed aside by a military commander when she sought help for her over-stressed husband—who hung himself in March while on duty at Trippler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. Now that wife and other widows and family members are publically telling the stories of their lost loved ones and pressing for changes in how soldiers and veterans are treated.      

The total number of U.S. military deaths by suicide since 2001 is now more than 2,600—in contrast to just under 2,000 military fatalities in Afghanistan, Time reported last week. The news magazine did not break down how many of 4,486 military deaths in Iraq were self-inflicted.

Among the stories that should be widely heeded is that of the death of Army Colonel Theodore Westhusing, who shot himself in June 2005 shortly before his tour in Iraq was to end, leaving a bitter suicide note addressed to his commanders.

“I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied -- no more,” Westhusing, who was 44 and due to return to teaching at West Point, wrote. “I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.” Westhusing’s wife told Army investigators he’d conveyed these concerns to her, as well. “I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on,” she said.
As The Texas Observer noted in an extensive report: “The disillusion that killed Ted Westhusing is part of the invoice that America will be paying long after the United States pulls its last troops out of Iraq,” wrote reporter Robert Bryce. “Some 846 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. Of those, 22 were suicides. Westhusing’s suicide, like nearly every other, leaves the survivors asking the same questions: Why? And what was it that drove the deceased to such despair?”

Perhaps Westhusing and many others might still be alive, if the U.S. military provided a civics course that encouraged soldiers to speak up about troubling experiences and were attentively listened to in discussing what can be done to improve the situation.

In the absence of such action, some soldiers, veterans and family members have been sharing their own stories in public meetings and to the news media and working on climbing out of black holes of despair through art and writings about disturbing experiences in the military and since coming home.

In whatever forum or format, speaking out can be life-saving for a soldier or veteran in anguish, as well as for the public to understand what’s going on in our military that’s so devastating.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's a tough topic to talk about under any (5+ / 0-)

    circumstances, and I think it's only compounded by military culture (of stoicism, of not making waves) and by civilian views of what military services exemplifies.

    Thank you for this.

  •  I remember Westhusing's suicide. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WakeUpNeo, Pluto, BOHICA, chimene

    It was very clearly understood the finger of that dead hand was pointed at David Petraeus.    Didn't hurt his career much, did it?

    Thanks for writing about this.  It is a huge problem.  Speaking with a medic recently about a Marine's shotgun suicide, I asked why they just didn't take away personal firearms.  He said, "They don't care."  He said it with a tone of bitterness and disdain that made it clear commanders really DON'T care.  Apparently, Pittard's comments really do reflect the opinion commonly held by commanders.

    "Democracy is only real if we all participate" -- Bea Bookler, 94 year-old voter disenfranchised by Voter-ID

    by 8ackgr0und N015e on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 10:12:53 PM PDT

  •  It's really a lot simpler than all that. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arlene, Renee, chimene

    You don't have to bring up all the politics, the war guilt, the "being taught to kill." Yes, servicemembers who have been in combat have a high incidence of PTSD and TBI, which increases the rate of suicide. But most servicemembers never see combat. Most of us have never been in a truly life-threatening situation ourselves, and only a small minority have actually killed someone or been directly responsible for someone's death. Most of the supply and maintenance personnel really don't do a whole lot of deep thinking about the ethical implications of fixing planes and handing out uniforms.

    No, it's something much, much simpler: Being in the enlisted military is a whole lot like being in an abusive relationship.

    In any other context, if someone were treated the way enlisted servicemembers were treated, that experience would be recognized as abusive in some form. In a school, it would be called bullying. In a romantic relationship, it would be called abuse. In a fraternity, it would be called hazing. In an employer-employee relationship, it would be called harassment (at best).

    But in the military, it's simply accepted. It's literally institutionalized; boot camp is an initiation period whose primary purpose is to teach new recruits to function under conditions of intense verbal abuse. Recruits are taught that their feelings don't matter, that they should simply accept what's being done to them, that it's all 'for their own good', that the military institution knows what's good for them better than they do, and that if they ever, ever have a problem, it's their own fault.

    And those lessons are continuously reinforced throughout a servicemember's career. You have to comply with arbitrary orders that serve absolutely no purpose other than as a display of power; you watch as anyone who ever has a problem (of any sort) has their career destroyed; you accept all sorts of limitations on your autonomy, your freedom of movement, association, and speech. You let people tell you where you're allowed to live, what you can do in your free time, who you can spend time with, how you keep your room, how you can dress (even in your off time). You comply because the orders have the full force and authority of the law behind them - you'll be punished if you disobey. You rationalize it because you chose to sign the contract.

    And you put up with even the things you're not 'supposed' to have to put up with - things like sexual harassment, racism, even rape or assault. You know it'll be worse for you if you say anything. So you shut up and put on your game face when you go to work. None of it is 'personal' - that's what they taught you. None of it really matters, because you don't matter.

    But it eats at you. You can't complain - not seriously. Sure, you can bitch about the unfairness of it all in a private chat with your buddies, but you can't actually bring it up to anyone who has the power to change anything - that'll ruin your career. So you act out in the small ways allowed to you. You drink. You smoke. You take out your anger on subordinates. You take stupid risks. You break the rules when you wear that belly shirt, get that tattoo, sneak down to Tijuana and have sex with a prostitute who's even more miserable than you are.

    For most of us, that's enough. Most of us make it through relatively unscathed...some of us who came from worse places come out healthier than we started. But in any abusive environment, there's always the minority whose coping mechanisms are too damaged or simply too inadequate for the problems they face. And when mental health treatment is largely off the table (and it is - you can't get seen by a military psychologist without your command finding out, and that's basically the same as complaining to your boss) it's easy to feel like there's no way out.

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 02:36:01 AM PDT

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