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Soldier Suicides, An Epidemic We Must Defeat

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John McDonnell / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Taps are played by an Army bugler at a soldier's burial in Arlington Cemetery on June 21 2012

Every day an active-duty member of our Armed Forces commits suicide.

To emphasize the silent, tragic epidemic that is sweeping across the U.S. military, consider this one statistic, which was brought to light in a recent TIME magazine article: “More U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there.”

Let me rephrase that, just to make sure you understood the above statistic: Since the start of the Afghanistan war in 2001, there have been more soldier suicides than soldier combat deaths.

It’s not as though the Pentagon has been doing nothing on this issue. They have been working to address the epidemic of soldier suicides through research, by setting up hotlines, expanding outreach programs, and increasing access to mental health services. Yet, we are still seeing a suicide per day.

Clearly, these efforts aren’t hitting their mark. Suicide is an extremely complex problem and we do not have all the answers, but one thing we do know is that the Pentagon must do better.

(MORE: Military Suicide: Help for Families Worried About Their Service Member)

On July 19, with bipartisan support, I helped to increase the Pentagon’s suicide prevention budget by $10 million in the defense annual budget that passed the U.S. House. It is my hope that in moving forward, the Pentagon will consider two important changes when spending this part of their budget to ensure that the most effective suicide prevention strategies are carried out.

First, address stigma. We must ensure that like all medical care, seeking and receiving psychological health care never jeopardizes a soldier’s security clearance or her or his prospects for promotion. There cannot be, and cannot be perceived by service members to be, a double standard around seeking medical care for the visible versus invisible wounds of war.

(MORE: A Thought for Veterans Day: Isolation Kills and Community Heals)

Second, break the problem down. If getting soldiers to recognize their mental health needs and seek treatment represents the Grand Challenge, consider tackling the smaller challenges. A focus on recognizing emotional pain, grief, stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, etc. and treatment through anonymous portals, out of system care, or peer to peer counseling can provide the most immediately accessible tools and techniques that soldiers need now. And, recent research from the Pentagon shows that this approach to suicide prevention is more effective.

The military, and perhaps the Nation at large, should think hard about how we perceive mental health care as a society. It will be difficult to see meaningful gains in suicide prevention without seeing a reduction in the stigma associated with seeking treatment.

(MORE: Military Suicides: The Families Left Behind)

At the end of the day, the Pentagon’s approach has to be targeted and effective.  The time is now to reverse the heartbreaking trend of soldiers taking their own lives every day.

Congressman Jim McDermott is a medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry and treated returning sailors and marines during the Vietnam War. He represents Washington State’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

28 comments
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RepLibtard
RepLibtard

I am a veteran and yes I understand the stress veterans face but you have to realize that people take their own lives every day. Civilian and military. You make it or you don't. You are strong enough to over come or you are not. It may be sad but in similar circumstances some of a species will overcome and others will fail. This is natures way. Is this insensitive? ...Yes. Is it just the truth of it ?...Yes. All though better psych screening of recruits can prevent some of these losses it wont prevent them all. We are all ultimately responsible for our own lives and sometimes our own deaths... so the blame lies primarily with the person making the choice. 

Guest
Guest

are you a veteran of OIF/OEF, Vietnam, or Korea? Have you seen friends killed in battle? Forgive my impertinence, but sitting in the TOC in Desert Storm 1 or fueling an aircraft at Ramstein is not the same as what these young people are facing now.

And even if you have witnessed these things stress affects different people differently. To chalk it up as "one of those things" or a sign of weakness is a cop-out.

RepLibtard
RepLibtard

I don't mind your question at all. different views need to be discussed. I am not going to write out my diary here but yes people I have known were killed, Yes people I have know were some of these suicides, ( freinds no...just guys I worked with.) 2 suicides in my time in service  as I recollect. Yes I had freind's injured... we laughed about it. What else can you do? When an rpg comes sometimes you gotta jump! I didn't work in a COC or office  I was  Infantry and good at it.  I volunteered a lot (dumb or a nut i guess). I got messed up up good myself and I was sent home disabled but made it through. I live on a farm now and do what I can with what I have left. I regret only that I couldn't continue doing my job and have that weird guilt thing over it. I am no hero just did my job and did it well. The VA takes good care of me. I have no complaints  

I will admit that people react to stress differently. I also admit, I am now,and was then a cold hearted bast@rd compared to most... so I handle stress well.  I chalk suicides up as a cop out. Someone cant handle the stress of life and kills them self. ...That seem like a cop out to me. How could it be anything else? Not every one is cut out for the job..they just aren't. They may be good people but it doesn't meant they have what it takes. The service like anything in life is a choice. There is no draft. You make the choice and deal with the consequences. Most can deal...A few can not...and a few of those few kill themselves.

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bintalshamsa
bintalshamsa

As a family member of one such ex-soldier who committed suicide a couple of years ago, I'm just really glad whenever I see articles written about this. I don't want any other families to experience what we have.

basilwhite
basilwhite

Shame on any reporter who sells a military suicide story without asking about the incentives to avoid care like Question 21 of the clearance form. Reread the article and replace "stigma" with "bad deal." We have to overcome the BAD DEAL of reaching out for help. Suicide often arises as a decision among competing incentives (http://www.freakonomics.com/20..., so if we want suicides to decrease, we have to make asking for help a good deal.

colonialmarine
colonialmarine

As both a seasoned legislator amp; former veterans mental health provider Rep. McDermott has unique insight in this matter.While his efforts to guide DoD are to be commended, directly across the Potomac the VA has for at least the past 8 years been callously diverting millions of dollars allocated by congress for intervention into veteran suicide to fund a massive cover up of  the VA’s own criminal malpractice and negligence in these same veteran suicides.

 

While the cases of Marine CPL Jeff Lucey (VAMC Belchertown MD, 2004) and LCPL Cameron Anestis (VAMC Lexington KY,  2009) are by no means bookends to this scourge, they are indicative of the previously cited criminal negligence. In both cases the veterans were patients of their respective facilities, in both cases they were charted as presenting acute suicidal ideation amp; intention, in both cases they were denied intervention and finally, tragically in both cases the veterans committed suicide within 24 hours of their betrayal by the VA.

 

Rep. McDermott is better qualified than most to recognize that when a mental health professional is faced with a patient who presents an acute danger to themselves or others, they not only have an ethical obligation to intervene, they are required by law to do so. 

 

The VA reaction to these cases follows a well greased protocol. VA overnights a phalanx of risk managers (lawyers) from DC to the local VAMC. One team goes to work scouring the electronic, paper and gossip trail through liberal applications of “attorney client privilege” and malicious contortions of HIPPA. A “communication specialist” manages the local VA Public Affairs officer to squelch any local or wire service revelations. Finally and most despicably a team of “closers” is dispatched to lean on the grieving family, usually before the funeral. Speaking in tongues of the Feres doctrine they pressure the survivors to accept a “no fault, no talk” settlement.

 

The tragedy is the VA’s direct complicity in deaths of dozens or even hundreds of the veterans they are sworn and paid to protect. The travesty is that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars intended to protect our veterans are being fraudulently wasted and abused to protect a parasitic nest of VA bureaucrats.

 

For the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars the VA has been allocated over the last 40 years to combat veteran suicide, the VA’s current best answer is a policy directing all VA voice mail and business cards to include the telephone number of the National Suicide ( “hold please”) Prevention Hotline. Perhaps Rep. McDermott might ask, “General Shinseki, where has all the money gone ?”

bbenedetti
bbenedetti

The only cure for the military suicides is to rid ourselves of this supremacist attitude

for the rest of the world. I guess the Republicans need to get off their military high.

everyone needs a military for unforeseen attacks  on their respective soils.

BB

awyeahh1
awyeahh1

These folks probably had bad tinnitus for going as far as killing themselves. RIP

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

It's obvious we have to treat soldiers better.

And we need to be a lot less tolerant of those officers and peers who abuse them.

We also have to find a way to let them leave if they don't want to be there anymore.

Not in the middle of battle obviously, but contract be damned, war and the military profoundly affects people and it damages or destroys many of them.

They need a way out.

And not one that makes them feel even worse.

The Canadians and the Brits have a much better way of dealing with this, take a hint.

RepLibtard
RepLibtard

They have a way out..Tell their medical officer that they will whack them selves..or write their congressmen..or a thousand other ways. About the superior or peer abuse...There are plenty of mechanisms in place to deal with this already. The bottom line is though if you cant take peer abuse  you have no business being in the military in the first place. If you cant handle the words how will you handle the sticks and stones?  

Derek Henderson
Derek Henderson

This is sad to see, but with this "war" dragging on for over a decade with no end in sight and only empty promises, it's not surprising to me. I feel like putting a bullet in my head b/c I hate my job and I don't even have to worry about dying everyday. Maybe someday our government will understand the war on terror is as winnable as the war on drugs. There will always be people that hate America and Americans and will want to do us harm.

kmbml
kmbml

Has anyone thought of checking into the usage of prescribed drugs that these troops are being given?  If you read the cautions or listen to the commercials one of the side effects may be suicide or thoughts of suicide when taking these meds. I have been trying to get this question addressed.

Jennifer Grace
Jennifer Grace

Like Ambien?

kmbml
kmbml

That is one of them, but how about paxil and a whole slew of "man made" drugs? I have been living with an infantry man from viet nam for 40+ years now and feel very much for all the young men, women, and children dealing with the problems when these soldiers return. 

KJM7
KJM7

Let us discuss the 6, 7, 8, 9 tours of war men are serving. Then coming home to normal life not being able to function because of PTSD. "that's ok, Sgt. Johnson to bad Jim died, now take YOUR government pyschatropics that say it could cause depression, suicidal thoughts, or hallucinations."

"I'm having more bad nightmares, and getting angrier" says Sgt. Johnson

"thats just fine here take some Prozac on top of the Xanax it all be fine." the government doctor smiled a reassuring grin

Two weeks later...

BREAKING NEWS X VETERAN KILLED 10 AT WALMART

Next day GIVE US YOUR GUNS.. we have to keep you safe ;)

ULURU
ULURU

As long as the privileged elitist college students and their snooty parents in this country do not have to worry about serving in the military, no one is really going to give a s*** about veterans.We should not have two classes of young people; we should have universal service including both sexes - then watch how fast this issue is addressed. Until then, nothing will get done except more psychobabble Bull****.

Christopher Fisher
Christopher Fisher

...or maybe we just shouldn't start pointless wars of aggression with countries that pose no risk to us. We never had any military suicide epidemic before we decided to occupy two nations. 

Derek Henderson
Derek Henderson

We're not at war with a country, we're at war with a mindset. If only it were that simple. As far as the poor serving and the rich not, there hasn't been a draft since Vietnam so people are going into service of their own free will.

bcfred
bcfred

Except that studies of military enlistment by income class show that each quintile is approximately proportionately represented, with the exception of the bottom quintile being slightly under-represented and the top quintile slightly over-represented - the opposite of what you suggest.  But don't let that break up a good class warfare story.

crabbyolddad
crabbyolddad

I would also wonder about the actual division of mental conditions as opposed to the income division. Remember that we have a 100% volunteer military. Those of us who remember the draft and had the pleasure of being involved in it can recall a mixture of  people from all over the board. I feel that today most of the military were outright volunteers because they "believed" more than they needed the money. During Viet Nam we had a better cross section of believers and non believers, gung ho's, and pacifists. Today that cross section is lacking. Nobody goes who doesn't at least THINK they want to.

Sean_G
Sean_G

Not questioning your info, but I'd like to read the source, if you could provide it. That sounds like an important read to me.

Guest
Guest

Sir-If you *really* want to get rid of stigma and concerns about security clearance, then you must have ODNI change the security clearance questionnaire. Currently Question 21 on the SF 86 asks whether in the past 7 years you have seen a mental health professional. Even though combat trauma counseling is exempt, there are a plethora of other issues (depression, sexual assault, for example) where a SM would need professional help. However, the presence of this question implies that seeking such services is suspect. In fact, if you answer "yes" to Question 21, your clearance approval is delayed. This is especially traumatic for rape victims, who, in addition to having to disclose the incident to an OPM investigator, are forced to wait upwards of a year while their clearance is being adjudicated. Simply asking the question is discouraging SM from getting help, because even if they ultimately are approved, they believe that it will hurt their chances for getting a clearance. IF a SM is so fundamentally damaged that they should not be handling national security issues (or a weapon, for that matter), where the hell is the leadership? And why is a form considered a better tool to detect these issues. Clearly, the cost of discouraging thousands of SM from getting treatment is not worth the benefit of the remote chance that someone will be caught during the security clearance process.

RepLibtard
RepLibtard

I was an infantryman but at one point I was assigned to a nuclear storage area that required a security clearance. Isn't the "remote chance" of catching an unstable applicant for a job like that worth it? Or is it more important not to hurt someones feelings or stigmatize them than to secure nuclear weapons?

Military directive is clear. Mission accomplishment takes priority over troop welfare. It always has been and always will be. If it didn't soldiers would never be allowed to fight because they might get hurt.

basilwhite
basilwhite

 

Shame on any reporter who sells a military suicide story

without asking about the incentives to avoid care like Question 21 of the

clearance form. Reread the article and replace "stigma" with

"bad deal." We have to overcome the BAD DEAL of reaching out for

help. Suicide often arises as a decision among competing incentives (http://www.freakonomics.com/20...,

so if we want suicides to decrease, we have to make asking for help a good

deal.

basilwhite
basilwhite

Shame on any reporter who sells a military suicide story

without asking about the incentives to avoid care like Question 21 of the

clearance form. Reread the article and replace "stigma" with

"bad deal." We have to overcome the BAD DEAL of reaching out for

help. Suicide often arises as a decision among competing incentives (http://www.freakonomics.com/20...,

so if we want suicides to decrease, we have to make asking for help a good

deal.

 

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