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Army Suicide Prevention Update
Before I go any further with this post, I want to address that Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman that may have come here for answers. You may be contemplating suicide and you’re seeking help over the internet. If this is your only outlet, please seek us out. My email address is on the sidebar and regardless of the time of day, you may contact me. If you need help, I will give you my personal phone number. Above all, don’t go to extremes and try to kill yourself.
I can promise you that this world is a beautiful place and you are an amazing part of it. Please don’t leave people wondering what kind of world it would have been had you stayed in it! There is nothing in this world worthy of taking your life. Believe it or not, a failed relationship, a bad deployment experience, a failed job, delinquent bills, terrible leadership, the loss of a family member or friend – none of that is worth your life. I desperately urge you to take those issues in your life and become something bigger in spite of your problems. There are people who care about you deeply and want to help you through whatever you’re facing right now. We may not understand, but we care and want help you through it. Once you take your life, it can’t be taken back. It’s definite. It’s over.
If you don’t contact us for help, please go somewhere. Check out www.militaryonesource.com for people that can help. Go to your chain of command. Seek out a complete stranger. Go to a hospital or police department. Just do something besides trying to take your life. I don’t know you personally, but I’d like to.
As many of you are aware, the military is suffering from an increased incidence of suicide. The military is attacking this issue head on and ensuring that no service member is left untouched in trying to prevent even one more. Our leadership is “deeply saddened” and “especially troubled” about this issue. While the military has ALWAYS been very proactive in trying to educate our troops, something isn’t working. January and February of this year saw the highest number of suicides in decades. 2008 was the worst year ever recorded. It is touching every segment of our force: active, reserve, and National Guard; officer and enlisted; deployed, nondeployed, and yet-to-be-deployed.
As of my birthday, March 2 (and Texas Independence Day), 138 Soldiers alone committed suicide in FY08 and five are still pending confirmation. In January of this year, the Army suffered 12 Soldier suicides with another 12 most likely to be confirmed suicides. In February, the number was slightly lower but no less frightening as there were two confirmed suicides with 16 pending confirmation for a total of 18.
“This is not business as usual,” warned General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. “As a leader and human being, I’m deeply saddened each time a soldier loses his or her life, but it is especially troubling when a soldier commits suicide.”
We are in a crisis that our leadership needs to address and tackle immediately. It will take a multidisciplinary approach to fix because the problem of suicide can’t be isolated to one particular cause. They are as varied as their are people who suffer them.
The Army has directed an immediate, Army-wide stand-down that is be currently being conducted. The stand-down is focused on standardized training support packages that will touch every Soldier to ensure that we attacking this problem from all directions. This has nothing to do with media perception or public affairs spin. We are doing this because even one lost Soldier to suicide is one too many.
To help meet this goal, we are using a variety of short- and long-range programs. One of those is the Strong Bonds program.
Strong Bonds has specialized programs for single Soldiers, couples and families. Those Soldiers being deployed or redeployed can also learn special coping tactics.
Strong Bonds empowers Soldiers and their loved ones with relationship-building skills, and connects them to community health and support resources. It is a holistic, preventative program committed to the restoration and preservation of Army families, even those near crisis. The program is initiated and led by the Army Chaplains. More than 90% of those who have attended the program rate it positively.
With Strong Bonds, participants not only bond with their loved ones. They bond with other Army families, chaplains and the Army community as a whole. In turn, our Soldiers realize that theyâ€™re not in this alone. They have an entire Army of support, both on duty and off.
Soldiers can’t do this alone and families play key roles in the mental health of our Warriors.
Another program recently launched is called Battlemind. I’ve already written about the Battlemind program (click HERE), so I won’t delve into it too deeply, but it’s a great place for Soldiers, spouses, and children to deal with the issues surrounding deployments. There are all sorts of resources that range from pre-deployment to post-deployment issues.
We’ve also worked hard to create a comprehensive Soldier fitness program. Research and statistics indicate that people are physically fit and focused on regular exercise are less likely to commit suicide. It provides an outlet for them to better their mental fitness while working on their physical fitness. The Army also has a research agreement in place with the National Institute of Mental Health to find outside-the-box methods of treating this phenomenon.
All of these programs are being integrated into the battle rhythm of our troops. Suicide prevention and recognition are incorporated at virtually every level of the NCOES (NonCommissioned Officer Education System) to assist first line supervisors and leaders of troops on the indicators of and prevention tools for suicide.
It is here that I want to pause and address another group of individuals – the NCOs of our military.
My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind — accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my Soldiers.
All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my Soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my Soldiers and never leave them uninformed.
I’m not sure about the rest of the services, but in the Army this is the creed that you and I live by. Notice how many times in just these few sentences the creed mentions “Soldiers”?
Our Soldiers are our most precious resource. Our troops are what makes things happen. A tank, a Predator, a javelin – none of that stuff does anything without manpower. Our job as NCOs is to take care of that precious resource that this nation’s mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers have entrusted into our hands.
I’m going to be honest here. I think that a large part of the problem with our current suicide statistics is that we NCOs have neglected this portion of our responsibilities. We take great pride in the fact that we brought all or most of our troops home from combat, but we tend to let out a sign of relief when we return and forget about those same guys and gals. Our mission is tough. While seeing to our own well-being and personal reconstitution, we are also empowered with the responsibility to see to theirs.
We need to take an active role in our Soldiers’ lives. This doesn’t mean we dictate everything they do or demand to know their every move. It means sitting down at a table in a neutral environment, looking them in the eye, and truly caring about their well-being. How many of you have spoken to your Soldiers’ parents? Do they know who you are? Why is that even important? you may be asking yourself.
Some troops don’t have a spouse or steady girlfriend. And if they do, who do you think our troops are going to turn to when/if that relationship goes sour? Mom and dad! If they don’t know who to seek out when they suspect something is wrong with their child, how can we help fix it?
Karen Francis, with Parents Zone, puts it this way:
When the relationship goes sour, when the marriage breaks up, the engagement, whatever, they come home to mom. Now, what can mom do? Because we aren’t always the next of kin, we are not the, quote, “family member,” we can see things in our children that perhaps no one else is. How can — and I’d like to put as many links on my site as I can for parents — how can mom and dad or sister and brother, who are seeing this, get hold of someone so that this soldier is looked after?
During the recent roundtable discussion, General Chiarelli noted that a majority of suicide cases had a least a relationship problem. COL Languirand put the number around 60%. Compound that with legal, financial, and drug problems and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. If we can just take away – or at least work to minimize – the impact of failed relationships on our troops, we can prevent a large number of these cases.
You should also know that a little more than 50% of the people who committed suicide had sought help. Just because someone does seek help, doesn’t mean the threat is gone. It’s important to follow through and continuously ensure that the Soldier is doing well during and after seeking counseling and assistance.
As leaders, when we see our troops having relationship issues, especially in marriages and more especially when children are involved, it helps to try and focus the couple on why they got married to begin with and try to get them to put themselves back into that frame of mind. We tend to get so comfortable in our relationships, we cease to work on them and build on the intimacy. Instead of helping our Soldiers with a divorce that is going to make things worse, we should first try to find common ground and keep these marriages together. There is a reason these two individuals got married. We need to help them see that.
We also need to involved in their lives to the point where we can easily recognize changes in behavior, work ethic, and mental health. If our troops are at the motor pool, we should be at the motor pool. If our troops are in the field, we should be in the field. If our troops are doing PT, we should be doing PT (and we should all be doing PT). Few things can sabotage a Soldier’s moral more than seeing their leadership slack off while they’re carrying the lion’s share of the workload.
Here the deal – and Major C from Major’s Perspective put this brilliantly at the roundtable – if you aren’t willing to be available to your troops 24 hours a day, get out! Leave my Army or at least turn in your stripes. If you get annoyed because a Soldier calls you on a Saturday night during a 4-day pass or in the middle of your two week leave, you’re missing the point of your position. Our Soldiers are never an inconvenience. NEVER. Even the ones that ARE an inconvenience deserve our attention to figure out WHY they are such. As Major C put it, “anyone that’s not willing to get up at 3:00 A.M. in the morning and take their soldier in if they need help…that person doesn’t need to be in the position he’s in.” Amen.
We as leaders need to ensure that we understand what this “multidisciplinary approach” that General Chiarelli speaks about really means. There is no easy answer to solving this problem, but leadership is the first big, logical step to figuring it out. Suicide isn’t caused by deployments. It isn’t caused by drug abuse. It isn’t caused by failed relationships. It isn’t caused by deaths in the family. It isn’t caused by financial issues or job losses. Suicide is caused by ALL of those and more.
One of the things we can’t do is try to compare and contrast our number with civilian numbers. The Army releases figures annually about suicide statistics. The civilian sector does as well, however the numbers are three years old. So we’re basically comparing 2005 numbers with 2008 numbers. In 2005, the latest figures available for suicide, 19.5/100,000 Americans committed suicide. In 2008, we exceeded that number for the first time with 20.5/100,000. And to be honest, to compare ourselves to the civilian is ignoring the nobility of our call to serve. We seek to be better than the civilian sector. We earn and continue to enjoy the respect of the civilians we risk our lives to protect.
Leaders should be careful in thinking that PTSD plays a large role in our suicide rates. According to recent statistics, only 5.4% of confirmed suicides were at the hands of someone diagnosed with the disorder. Now, naturally, not everyone with PTSD has been diagnosed so this number isn’t entirely accurate. But, it does show that just because a Soldier isn’t suffering from PTSD doesn’t mean that they aren’t prone or susceptible to suicide.
It’s also important to note that a Soldier doesn’t necessarily have to have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan to consider suicide. A third of those that committed suicide had no deployment experience at all. Another third committed suicide WHILE deployed and the final third had a deployment, which may or may not have included the current conflicts (ie: Desert Storm, Bosnia, etc).
Additionally, the rational person might think that the more deployments of the individual, the more likely he/she is to commit suicide. In fact, this is quite the opposite.
“A certain resiliency seems to grow in an individual who has multiple deployments,” said Chiarelli. “We actually see the percentage of suicides for multiple deployers much smaller than for individuals who have had a single deployment.”
This is an interesting statistic and one that seems to defy what could have been considered the conventional wisdom until now. What it does show, as I said earlier, is that the issue of suicide is very complicated and varies by individual. We’re agressively attacking the problem with videos and other aides at every echelon. It’s something that I’m actively engaged in with my troops and I can assure everyone that the Army is reacting to this because it’s a problem, not because the media are starting to notice.
It takes a holistic approach. We need to think outside the box to combat this historic problem. Only by taking care of each other and looking beyond the scope of our own noses will be bring these numbers down. My worry is that suicide numbers always climb in the summer time. If this is where we are now, the summer will not be a happy one.
We are focused on this issue. We are doing everything possible to bring these numbers or to eliminate them totally. General Chiarelli calls this “one of the hardest problems I’ve seen in 36 years.” It’ll take a concerted and deliberate effort. We need all Soldiers, leaders, families, and friends to come together and help defeat the forces that are causes our troops to give up complete hope and choose a path of no return. I truly hope and pray that we can.