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Retired Flag Officers Demand Troops’ Gun Information

Perspectives  December 03 2012
 — By CJ Grisham
Retired Flag Officers Demand Troops’ Gun Information

According to the Washington Post, a group of retired generals and admirals is lobbying congress to change their stance on the 2011 NDAA that ordered military leaders from collecting information about the weapons troops keep at home.

Reading the article, none of the officers’ logic is…well, logical.

Critics say the law prevents commanders from being able to talk to service members about their privately owned weapons — such as encouraging the use of a gunlock or temporary storage away from their homes — even in cases when the commanding officer thinks the service member is at risk for suicide.

“The law is directly prohibiting conversations that are needed to save lives,” states a letter sent last week to members of Congress by a dozen retired officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis J. Reimer and former surgeons general for the Army, Air Force and Navy.

“It unnecessarily hampers a commander from taking all possible practical steps for preventing suicide,” one of the signers, Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, said Saturday. Dubik commanded the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

There is absolutely nothing in the law that is preventing commanders and leaders from “encouraging the use of a gunlock or temporary storage away from their homes.” Nothing at all. As a matter of fact, if leaders truly care about their troops, these types of discussions will come naturally whether they know their troops have weapons or not.

Before every weekend or holiday, leaders across the Army are known to give the same “safety brief” to their troops that to refrain from drinking and driving, swimming and driving, engaging in unsafe or extramarital sex, or some other stupid activity. So, why is it so hard to include in these briefings not to shoot yourself or to lock up your guns if you believe you are a danger to yourself and others?

The approach requested by these officers is the path of least resistance and a lazy one. Instead of respecting the troops’ right to privacy and gun ownership, they simply want to take the path most traveled and just collect the information so they can action on it.

Collecting information on guns didn’t solve the suicide problem prior to 2011 and it’s not going to solve the suicide problem prior to 2011 and it’s not going to solve it now. I’ve written often on this site about the need for REAL leadership to solve the suicide problem. It’s not something at which we can just throw money and Powerpoint briefings. It takes engaged leadership that ACTUALLY CARES about their subordinates and creates a climate free of micro-management, disdain, and a selfish desire to obtain promotion on their backs.

The DOD’s flag officers understand the epidemic of suicide within the force. They understand that changes need to be made. What they don’t understand is that many leaders at the troop level DON’T understand the epidemic. They see problems from the prism of their respective commands. Troops that are struggling with PTSD and/or depression are treated as second-class Soldiers. The impulse is not to exercise good leadership and try to get to the root causes of each individual Soldier, but to chapter them out.

I cannot even count anymore how many troops (or their family members) from many different services have contacted me because they went to their commands for help and they just made it worse. These troops wanted to get help, but now they’re being threatened with discharge. They still want to serve, which is why they sought help. But, leaders are making matters worse by completely turning their worlds upside down.

This year, the Army is experiencing a record number of suicides. We still have another month to get through. Only 48% of those suicides were committed with a privately owned weapon, according to the WP story. I say “only” merely in the context of this discussion. Every suicide is a life cut short, so I don’t mean to belittle or minimize a single one.

The problem isn’t the law. The law doesn’t prevent commanders from inquiring whether we have guns. It just prevents them from “collecting” that information. In the military and legal context, this means storing and databasing this information. If I am worried about a Soldier, I am allowed to ask him if he has any weapons. I am allowed to recommend that he turn them over to a friend or store them temporarily in the arms room until he feels safe. I am allowed to reach out to his/her family members for assistance.

If leaders were actively engaged in the lives of their troops (in the sense of just knowing them and caring about them, not dictating or managing every aspect of it), they would know without asking whether or not their troops have weapons. There are ways of helping troops with privately owned firearms understand the risk involved if they should find themselves in a situation of thinking that life is no longer worth carrying on.

How many times have commanders or leaders sat down with their troops outside the setting of chapel-procured, Powerpoint-led, mandated training to just lead a discussion about weapons safety and/or PTSD and suicide prevention? Beuhler? Beuhler? I have never seen it happen. I have never heard of it happening.

This is what I’m talking about when I seemingly never seem to shut up about command engagement. I understand we are an Army at war for the past 11 years and we’re all tired, regardless of rank. Did you know that 40% of all suicides were in the ranks of Sergeant (E5) to Sergeant Major (E9)? About 27% are over 30.

Another aspect of this problem that the military doesn’t seem to be addressing is managing the public perception of PTSD. Not only do most people unassociated with the military have a negative perception of what troops suffering from PTSD are going through. We’ve allowed the media to spread this false belief unchallenged. In addition to the uneducated about PTSD, there are also those that SHOULD or DO know better using PTSD against those they disagree with.

Have my longtime readers noticed that I no longer share my personal thoughts, struggles, successes, and tools I’ve used in dealing with my PTSD and depression? Why is that? It surely isn’t because I no longer want to help troops by sharing my experiences, my shortcomings, and my successes. I don’t write about it any more because there are despicable people that have tried to use my writings for their own selfish purposes. They’ve used them against me. They’ve used my writing to paint me as unhinged or somehow incapable of being a Soldier, much less a leader. I no longer wish to expose myself to the ignorant ramblings of has-been, wanne-be combat veterans who don’t like me.

Unfortunately, that means that my experiences are now limited to helping those with whom I come in direct contact and share my story. I’m not cured by any means, but I think I’ve been quite successful in managing my symptoms and diagnoses. I still have bad days. There aren’t as many of them, thankfully, but I still have them.

Without good leadership, our troops are going to continuing killing themselves regardless of whether or not we allow commands to collect this information. With good leadership, we will still suffer these regrettable events as well. I happen to think that with good, engaged leadership at all levels and outside of the current, “check the block” leadership mentality in dealing with suicide prevention we can make a huge difference. The answer is not encroaching on our civil liberties and privacy, which leads to other problems.

Let’s assume that these retired officers get their wish and commanders are allowed to collect information about privately owned weapons. What if a Soldier refuses to disclose that he has privately owned weapons? What if he doesn’t disclose ALL the weapons he owns? Is that punishable? Why? If commanders know their troops have privately owned weapons, they can’t legally confiscate them. They could force these troops to live in the barracks for their own safety, but that wouldn’t prevent them from accessing their weapons or buying new ones.

Naturally, this idea has the support of some in Congress. Naturally, these are gun control proponents like Senator John Kerry. After all, John Kerry co-sponsored legislation after the Arizona shooting that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that would have banned “high-capacity” magazines and certain weapons.

But, I think this is about something more sinister. Remember when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called combat veterans potential domestic terrorists and “right-wing extremists?” I think this is simply an effort to collect and database this information so that if the government decides to impose martial law, they can identify those troops that refuse to enforce it and may be a threat to a dictatorial government.

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