This is one war America cannot afford to lose.
Despite several years of trying to prevent a rise in the number of military suicides, the Pentagon reported last week that, for the first time in a generation, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves last year than were killed in a war zone.
The Army also saw a record in the number of confirmed or suspected suicides – 349 – among both active and nonactive military personnel. This was a 16 percent increase over 2011 despite the end of a US role in Iraq and a decline of troops in Afghanistan.
The causes for this “enemy within” are baffling the experts because about half of the suicides were by individuals with no overseas deployment. And since 2007 the Pentagon has greatly beefed up its support and counseling programs, such as increasing the number of behavioral health experts by 35 percent and even embedding them with the troops.
Some experts speculate that the high-profile prevention programs themselves are planting the idea of suicide in soldiers. Others claim a mental contagion as more soldiers imitate the acts of others.
Tackling the problem will first require an end to the confusion of so many programs aimed at the mental and emotional problems of service personnel. Army Secretary John McHugh admits to an overabundance of programs and hopes to streamline them. “Interventions are not coming as early as we would like to see them,” he says.
The most difficult task, however, is changing military culture. Too many soldiers feel stigmatized in reporting personal problems or fear jeopardizing their career. It’s a difficult balance to maintain a culture of courage and endurance and then also welcome admissions of vulnerability, confusion, and helplessness.
Secretary McHugh wants to increase “resilience” training for soldiers but also create a climate for soldiers to “just put their arm around another soldier and say, ‘Come on, let’s get some help’.”
That soldier-to-soldier compassion is the necessary initial step toward finding help for soldiers possibly heading toward suicide.
And for soldiers who have experienced war zones, many need help in dealing with the shock of combat, the shame and guilt of surviving when friends are killed, or participating in an action that hurts civilians or fellow soldiers. These emotional injuries often require a well-trained chaplain or other counselor to restore a soldier’s moral and spiritual bearing.
Spotting a soldier’s internal turmoil is half the battle. A majority of service members who die by suicide were not known to have an emotional or mental disorder.
One of the new military slogans is “never let our buddy fight alone.” The quiet assistance of fellow soldiers for those fighting inner woes may be the bravest act in saving lives within the military. No medals will be given. But one by one, this war can be won.