Suicide in the Armed Forces: Not a Disgrace
This past September was Suicide Awareness Month for those serving, past and present. The suicide rate for active-duty Service members, spouses, and veterans has increased since 2001. The major problem is that suicides were not tracked efficiently, so it is hard to get a grip on the why, the how, and the needed treatment. American Thinker interviewed those who have studied this issue as well as some who have attempted suicide.
Kim Ruocco, who has a master's degree in social work and is the manager for Suicide Outreach and Education Programs for TAPS (http://www.taps.org/suicide/), lost her husband in 2005. Major John Ruocco, a decorated Marine, committed suicide while he was preparing for a second tour of duty to Iraq. She wishes there were a "code for cracking this complicated formula on how to recognize if someone is at risk. What are the risk factors that put someone over the edge? It seems that the "perfect storm" of factors occurs when we lose a solider to suicide. Most people who die by suicide have been sick for a long time. They become obsessed and think that it is the only way to end their emotional pain. It transitions from a thought to a desire to an impulse."
Dr. Charles Hoge, a retired Army colonel and psychiatrist who wrote the informative book Once A Warrior Always A Warrior (http://onceawarrior.com/about/), told American Thinker that for two to three decades, the suicide rate was about 25% lower for those in the military compared to the civilian population. However, starting in 2005, the rates went up significantly, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps, where they have doubled and now exceed the civilian rate.
A contributing writer to RHINO Den, Greg Drobny, believes that the numbers are actually being underreported and that suicide rates among veterans from previous wars have also risen. He also points out, "The most recent data released from the Pentagon, for the years 2008-2011, show that 52% of military suicides are by those who have never deployed to a combat zone. Another 34% are those who deployed but in a non-combat role, meaning that 14% of those who took their own lives were combat veterans." Dr. Hoge says that it appears that the soldiers with the highest number of deployments are less likely to commit suicide, attributing this to the "healthy warrior effect" and resilience, especially those in Special Ops.
Having to go through rigorous training and then not being deployed is also a factor. Ms. Ruocco suggests, "It is like training for the Super Bowl and you do not get into the game. There is a sense of not belonging, not having a purpose, and losing an identity of being a soldier. There is also the feeling that since they never were in combat, there is no excuse for their feelings. It's extra-challenging for them to seek out help."
All interviewed agree that the reasons a soldier might commit suicide range from military service to life stresses that have nothing to do with serving. Other contributing factors are underlying mental heath disorders, being injured, TBI, PTSD, depression, grief over losing a team member, and heavy alcohol and prescription drug use. The symptoms include sleeplessness, anxiety, withdrawal, changes in eating habits, hopelessness, and loss of belonging. Dr. Hoge believes that the warrior mentality also contributes: "Assessing what happens and seeing if something could be done differently in ingrained in the military service. This contributes to a lot of guys blaming themselves, which can lead to suicidal thoughts."
To understand the mentality, American Thinker also interviewed those who attempted suicide but have since found a purpose to their lives. Mike, a former Marine, discussed how he felt isolated and fearful after returning from Iraq. "I was trapped in a dark hole, being overweight, unhappy, depressed, and a very heavy drinker. There was no sense of purpose for me. It all came to a head when I attempted to commit suicide. I had planned to cut myself with a knife. I walked over to the knife drawer in my kitchen and opened it. A voice in my ear calmly whispered to me to put it down. I shut the drawer as hard as I could and cried. I had never cried like that in my life. I realized I was just trying to hurt myself. I decided to ask for help and take the support of others, that this was not a sign of weakness."
Michael, who served in the Army for fourteen years, saw his medic and gunner killed when their vehicle hit an IED. He was severely burned, losing both his arms. "An important factor for me was, I lost my sense of purpose. I enjoyed being in the Army. My career was being a soldier, which gave me a routine. Every day I knew where I was going, with whom, and what were my duties. All of a sudden, there was no driving force. One day I was on the battlefield, and the next day I was in a hospital. I lost friends and comrades in that vehicle. For a while I dwelled on the fact that I lived and they died. I think those that attempt suicide are trying to figure out where they fit in the world."
Boone, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq, blames the side-effects of the drugs prescribed to him. "I now have TBI and Parkinson's Disease from the injuries suffered. After being given medications, I felt more impulsive, had loss of self-control, and was depressed. Part of the blame is with the drug Mefloquine, given to prevent malaria. Look at the FDA's warnings since 2013 that it can cause neurologic and psychiatric side-effects, sometimes permanent. I still have suicidal thoughts that I think about each and every day. I cannot explain why these thoughts are always there, especially since I have a support system, go to therapy, and stopped all medication."
How to help those with suicidal thoughts? Everyone interviewed encourages any veteran or soldier feeling suicidal to seek help and discuss his or her feelings. Greg also says there is a need for the military community to be vocal about this issue and no longer have it as a taboo subject.
Boone suggests taking the Spartan Pledge: "I will not take my own life by my own hand without talking to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family." He explained that anyone who has taken this pledge promises to directly talk to an assigned war buddy before committing suicide. "Not one person who has taken this pledge has tried to kill themselves. This is a code for warfighters that they will change their minds after talking to a war buddy. The purpose is to keep our buddies alive."
Kim thinks suicide prevention programs such as the Soldier 360 Program are very helpful. It helps people identify, manage, and connect the stressors. It is a holistic care program, since those with suicidal thoughts are working with peers, and is very interactive. "It gives the tools going forward by looking at what a person has been exposed to professionally and personally and finds ways for them to communicate and problem-solve."
Emily, the wife of a soldier who committed suicide while deployed in Iraq, wants Americans to understand that it is not a selfish act and that family members should never feel shame. "For a long time I would not discuss my husband's death because I did not think it to be as honorable as others who have died in combat. I talk about it now because I don't think his death is any less important. I don't want how he died to define his life."
Bestselling author Charles Todd wrote about suicide in a book: "It was not his fault. It was the fault of war and of our inability to understand how to save him." Hopefully with honest, blunt dialogue, this is an issue that will be dealt with, and the numbers will once again fall to all-time lows.
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.