The view from my foxhole: Army suicides
October 8, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - As the Army wrestles with the rise of suicides, there are several observations from the spiritual domain of resiliency that merit discussion.
First, it goes without saying that no two suicides are identical. There are, however, common threads that link many acts of self-destruction such as the loss of significant relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, stress, financial and health problems.
The Army lacks no ability to identify Soldiers who suffer with these maladies. Neither does it lack for programs to help them. There are over 600 behavioral health, risk reduction and suicide prevention programs in the Army.
Some of these programs do outstanding work. They make trained counselors available to Soldiers who need someone to talk with outside the chain of command.
But herein lies one of our problems: help is available "at a distance" from the Soldier. The trained counselor or specialist is available eight to five o'clock and there's a hotline to call on weekends or after duty. The Soldier can call the hotline and talk to a stranger - someone who is paid "to care." That person cannot come to their house, or sit with them through the night. When the Soldier is desperately lonely or plagued by intrusive thoughts the counselor is not there.
Don't get me wrong. Hotlines are a necessary part of our lives. And good counselors can help a Soldier or spouse see that they have options and the sky is not falling.
But after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on these 600 programs and the suicide rate continues to rise, it's just possible that something else is needed. General Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, identified one solution to the problem - Soldiers (and spouses) need an honest-to-God, no-kidding battle buddy to help them through difficult times. That buddy or roommate sticks to them every day. This idea is on target because we are our brothers' keeper and when one suffers we all suffer.
This solution is limited though because battle buddies can bleed out. Young leaders are limited in what they can give. Genuine support, love and care is costly. It does not require a graduate degree in counseling, but it does requires a Ph.D. in commitment and caring for your brother.
This leads to the second observation. People have value. But how do we teach Soldiers and Family members that they have worth' If they came from abusive homes where no one loved them and they get hammered by their boss for small infractions where are they to learn that they have intrinsic value'
Doctor Viktor Frank, survivor of several concentration camps in Nazi occupied Europe stated that the person who sees, knows and understands the meaning of his life will not willingly destroy it. Such a person is less likely to self-destruct if they know that they have intrinsic worth.
This self-worth comes from a spiritual frame of understanding, where a person finds his self-worth not in his job performance but in his relationship to God who says he has dignity, worth and meaning because he is made in the image of God.
Such an understanding points to the spiritual domain - that one area of comprehensive Soldier fitness that everyone agrees is important but no one talks about. We do not talk about it because we are told that religion and military service do not mix. Yet the reality is that every Soldier prays when they are headed out on a mission. Every spouse prays that their Soldier will come home safe and in one piece. And every human being longs to know that they are important to someone, and at the very least they must know God cares about their situation.
Suicide is a spiritual, physical and psychological issue. Until we help Soldiers find their true value and reason for being, we will not arrest this downward malaise in the military.
Behavioral coping skills cannot be imparted through videos, slide shows and lectures. But Soldiers will learn self-care when they know and believe that their life has real meaning and purpose.