Going Through the Motions on Military Suicide
U.S. military suicides are making headlines. We hear that in 2012 the number of suicide deaths in the U.S military overshadowed the number of soldiers who died fighting in Afghanistan. 22 a day keep freedom away... and the numbers are rising despite "an aggressive prevention campaign." What are the reasons for self-annihilation of soldiers and veterans? In comparison to the "civilian world", what are the additional fatal stress factors?
We hear about "the military suicide epidemic" but it's hard to believe that contagion could have such an impact on all branches of active duty services and on veterans. With so many tragic losses in such a short time, soldiers have a workplace where awareness campaigns continuously interweave with prevention and postvention. Living "before", "now" and "after" multiple suicides at the same time can be by itself a powerful stress factor, but this negative experience is not exclusive to the military.
No matter if PTSD is triggered by one traumatic event or by series of events, it affects the survivor's health in multiple ways and negative coping can result in health-risk behaviours. Depression, echoing trauma, and severe health problems can certainly contribute to suicidal behaviours, but not all soldiers suffer from PTSD and for that matter, not all victims of traumatic events have PTSD. It's very important that people who need help know that they can get it without a "crazy" label as a fringe benefit. Soldiers must be listened to and heard, no matter if they evoke health problems or organizational problems. A sensitization campaign should not turn into a campaign of "psychiatrization" because it would add insult to injury.
What does my future hold?
The rates of unemployment for veterans remain high, particularly for 18-24 age groups. In "Female veterans are fastest growing segment of homeless population"(March 1, 2013, Color Lines), Jorge Rivas writes: "Follow up studies have also found men and women who have faced sexual trauma in the military are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with black females disproportionately affected". No matter what color and no matter what shade of PTSD or MST, the veterans are people who consciously decided to risk their lives for our society. If some employers should be "afraid" to give jobs to well-trained individuals with good discipline because of "potential PTSD", we should also forget about hiring psychiatrists for fear of "potential workplace violence". How can we even talk about an efficient treatment for PTSD or MST when the survivor of traumatic event belongs now to the most vulnerable population? If PTSD is seen as an important factor contributing to suicides, homelessness and unemployment should be seen not only as potentially lethal stress factors but also as roadblocks to PTSD treatment.
Combat means fighting and if soldiers are sent on a battlefield with a manual on how to respect and befriend, it will cause confusion. Even in the corporate world, such a strategy would be both laughable and doomed. War is a nightmare and fighting has never been pretty, so a government sending soldiers out to battle does so consciously and shouldn't whine about them doing their job.
Obama is simultaneously bragging about killing Bin Laden and stating that: "the future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam." While pointing out that violent extremism is inspired by violent jihadists, he also claims that "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace."
Before sending soldiers to fight a war, it would be nice to define "our side" and to answer the question: to fight or not to fight? It would be great to make a clear distinction between "friendly" and "unfriendly" before encouraging soldiers to be amicable towards the local (armed) population. A danger zone is hardly a place for karaoke and soldiers shouldn't face the dilemma between being jailed in Leavenworth for shooting in self-defense or hesitating and getting killed.
A soldier is somebody who risks his/her life in combat. He can come back home as a paraplegic, an amputee, a trauma survivor. If you were the commander-in-chief, what would you give soldiers and veterans in return? Would you punish a soldier who wants to see your birth certificate? Would you think that the Fort Hood victims were not entitled to receive Purple Hearts? Would you jail a soldier for acting in self-defense? Would you bow to foreign leaders?
Veteran unemployment, budget cuts, homelessness, policies hurting the military, confusing demands and unsettling punishment... Are we talking "an aggressive prevention campaign" or only "going through the motions"? When will the real wounds start healing? Do we have to wait until Obama is not in Kansas anymore?
Joanna Rosamond coaches for high stress jobs