Soldier Suicide Far From Over
By: Brian Kinsella; Former US Army Captain & Founder and CEO of Stop Soldier Suicide
April 21, 2011
A 3.7% decrease in Active Duty Soldier suicides from 2009 to 2010 is not something the Department of Defense (DoD) should tout as an indication that suicide prevention programs are working, especially when Reserve and National Guard suicides nearly doubled from 80 to 145 in the same time span. Of more dramatic concern are the staggering suicide statistics coming out of the veteran community. The Army Times reported last year that there are roughly 18 veteran suicides a day with an average of five of those by veterans who are receiving VA care. Such aggregate numbers are truly staggering and the thought that suicide prevention programs alone will reverse the epidemic is a far cry.
While the DoD is diligently pushing commanders at all levels to look for indications of mental stress and raise awareness about available mental health programs in each respective service, the overall plan is not unified and is branch or locality specific. In a recent RAND Corporation study, “The War Within”, unignorable holes are identified in military suicide prevention activities. While each branch of service faces its own specific issues, it is tragic there is not a unified, overarching suicide prevention program working in coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs and cooperative civilian mental health programs.
What is really troubling is the long term impact of such disjointedness. At the crucial end of such bleak statistics is the long-term mental health of our nation’s soldiers. The suicide problem degenerating the Active, Reserve, and National Guard components will not only carry over to the veteran community, but will increase as soldiers try to reintegrate into society.
Senior military leaders acknowledge that our military is operating at its breaking point from fighting the longest, prolonged war in our nation’s history. A generation of soldiers are emotionally fraught and returning home to children who do not know them, spouses who have left them, emptied bank accounts, and citizens who easily forget that we are a nation at war. As I experienced first hand commanding troops during the Operation IRAQI FREEDOM surge, many soldiers grow to prefer life in a deployed environment instead of being home. At least in combat they are focused on a mission with a structured environment instead of dealing with the problems they endure in garrison life.
As the wars wind down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, more soldiers will come home to face life in such a hostile home environment; one they often come to fear more than the front lines of war. The defense spending budget was cut in 2011 for the first time since 9/11 and, with pressure rising to continue cutting the deficit, this trend will continue through the 2012 elections. Even though troops will continue to get paid as essential government personnel, defense spending cuts will most certainly result in a downsizing of the military. Correspondingly, as more mentally exhausted soldiers are forced from active duty, they face a potentially bleak transition to veteran status.
Moreover, the timing of combat soldiers reintegrating into society during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression is a bona fide recipe for disaster. Gone are the days where an infantryman can transition from active service into a manufacturing job. It is harder today than ever before for soldiers to parlay basic military training and experience into the technically intensive jobs available today. The government affords many with the new GI Bill, but in a society where Bachelor’s Degrees are a requisite afterthought, this is not a solution assuring veterans employment.
Many former soldiers will be left wondering why the nation they fought so hard to defend has forsaken them to an alien environment that has seemingly forgotten their service. As soldier and veteran suicides swell under today’s operating conditions, we owe it to ourselves to stay ahead of the problem as the veteran population increases. More importantly, we owe it to our brave countrymen to help provide purpose, direction, and motivation as they transition into a civilian society and aspire to normal lives. Simply put, civilian and military leaders need a strategic plan that harmonizes the DoD, VA, and civilian organizations in offering comprehensive, mental health support.
Without a robust veteran support system, statistics show that some susceptible veterans will choose to commit suicide. As the US government tightens spending we need innovative, low cost solutions to help soldiers and veterans. The movement to fight suicide is underway and this is a call to action to give back to those who have so heroically served our nation. If not, our brave men and women will fight a harder battle at home then fought in war. This existential battle does not end with a mortal war wound from an enemy, but instead a nationally embarrassing, self-inflicted wound that numbs our collective psyche with yet another suicide statistic.