Thoughts on War, Loss, and Suicide

This morning I woke up to see yet another story about soldier suicides — this one about a Vietnam veteran.  This story comes even as the Army has launched a renewed wave of suicide prevention training.  In my reserve unit, I’ve sat through at least four sessions in the last six weeks, and the tone grows ever more urgent and frantic.  Simply put, nothing is working, and the death toll from suicide is now dwarfing the death toll from combat.

As you would expect, the explanations usually begin and end with PTSD.  But it’s more than that, much more.  After all, suicide rates are surging even as combat winds down, and the rates are apparently surging above those of past wars — wars where soldiers suffered even greater rates of death and injury.  We also know what PTSD is and have good ideas about treating it or at least mitigating its effects.  As an Iraq vet, I can testify that the Army generally asks early and often about potential PTSD symptoms (though it can be spotty about following up).  Yet still suicides mount.

Why?

I can think of at least three reasons: Broken families, broken dreams, and broken care.

1.  Soldiers increasingly come from — and return to — broken homes.  Even without the stresses of deployment and prolonged separation, our culture is struggling to preserve the basic family unit.  Young soldiers come from unstable families, form unstable families (often by having children out of wedlock), and then leave for month after month — hoping and expecting that these fragile families hang together long enough for them to return.  Army lawyers “downrange” sometimes have to draw charts to figure out the complex family relationships implicated when a “baby momma” strays or when a mom takes off with a new man (still clutching her soldier son’s power of attorney).  Simply put, the “Dear John” letter — long a staple of soldiers’ combat experience — is now a “Dear John” Facebook post, text message, or phone call.  And they come with increasing, terrifying frequency.

Even worse, spousal or girlfriend/boyfriend betrayal is often at the hands of fellow soldiers.  The modern American military base is a hive of activity, with families surrounded by soldiers coming, going, training, and visiting.  Lonely wives and girlfriends suffer from no shortage of alternatives, and stateside soldiers are often shamefully enthusiastic about offering a shoulder to cry on.

How serious is the problem?  It’s tough to say with certainty, but during my own deployment I was stunned at the extent of the family collapses.  And every single attempted, threatened, or completed suicide that I’ve encountered in my Army career was immediately precipitated by trouble at home.  Every single one.

2.  Soldiers suffer from broken dreams — a vast gulf between expectations and reality.  In hindsight I’m ashamed by my own naiveté.  As my deployment wound down, dreams of home life began to dominate my mind.  I would be reunited with my loving, supportive wife (she was both), throw my arms around two great kids (that was before we adopted), and experience a renewed zeal and appreciation for life — proud of my service.  Instead, I came home a mess.  I was grieving — our unit suffered heavy casualties, and the grief that I’d put aside to do my job came rushing on me in the quiet of our home.  I was a ball of anxiety — almost of full year of tension and fear doesn’t release overnight.  And, finally, I was angry.  I hated our enemy — a white-hot hate — and for a time literally could not be in the same room with someone who questioned the rightness of our fight.  I had seen the atrocities, I had learned the enemy’s mind, and a vast gulf existed between me and those who often sneeringly and condescendingly denied realities I’d experienced firsthand.

Even worse, these feelings simply didn’t go away with time.  Sure, they may have lessened from day to day, but they didn’t disappear, everything wasn’t “ok,” and I had no idea how to deal with it.  I was thankful for the grief because it kept (and keeps) me from forgetting those we should never forget.  But the anxiety and the rage?  Those I could do without.

I finally had to accept that — for better and for worse — I was never, ever going to be the person I was before the war.  I had permanently changed. And I had changed without enduring the difficulties that most of my brothers endured, or that hundreds of thousands of others have endured.  I was just a JAG officer, after all, not a cavalry scout or infantry platoon leader.  And I was physically intact — coming home without a scratch (well, except for the nose I broke through my own stupidity).

Do we prepare our young soldiers for permanent change?  Do we tell them that they will never be the same?  That one consequence of their service will be a lifetime of memories, struggles with emotions they can’t always control, and a feeling of alienation from a culture that largely can’t understand their experience?  Or do we encourage them to believe that everything will be ok, that re-integration — while difficult — will eventually be complete?  I would say that no soldier emerges from war completely unscathed, every soldier is changed in some way, and some are changed more than others.  We must prepare soldiers for that change, or for a small percentage broken dreams of peace and happiness lead to dark and dangerous thoughts.

3. Soldiers receive broken care from a bureaucracy that can’t heal hearts.  While thousands of health care professionals are doing their best, a bureaucracy is a poor vehicle for repairing broken hearts and minds.  I’ve seen too many soldiers treated with a pile of pills, with once lively personalities deadened by drug cocktails that include anti-depressants, painkillers, anti-anxiety medicines, and sleep aids.  Sometimes I wonder if Ambien isn’t the official Army drug.

But what’s the alternative?  I had a loving wife, supportive friends, a pastor who cared — just about the most ideal support system one could construct.  Other soldiers have less than nothing — spouses who betray them, friends who abandon them, and no church to call home.  The bureaucracy is all they have, and that’s a heartbreaking thought.

What can we do?  As a soldier, I can vow to never, ever break faith with my brothers.  To sustain them, to be strong when they are weak, and to understand and listen when no one else can.  The soldier’s creed demands that we never leave a fallen comrade, but those are too often mere words — especially when soldier infidelity actually creates casualties.

As a church, I think it means two things: First, it means reaching out to military families, even those families who don’t actually darken the door of your worship center.  Second — and perhaps more critically — it means more Christians need to serve.  The military protects the liberty of a church whose members increasingly won’t fight themselves.  Who’s better-equipped to go to war?  Those with fragile families, fragile faith, and faithless friends?  Or those with spouses bound together by a covenant, sustained by an eternal hope, and supported by the body of Christ?

Finally, as a nation, I simply don’t have any answers.  Our institutions are rightfully scrambling to do better, but for the reasons outlined above, bureaucracies tend to be poor caregivers.  And a fracturing culture — together with fracturing families and marriages — take an enormous toll on the human heart.  I know that we can do better . . . I just don’t know how.

  • Tara Edelschick

    Thank you for writing this. And God bless you, and all returning vets.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Powerful stuff. Thanks for the thoughtful summary.

  • Brandon

    Mr. French,

    As a vet of Iraq and Afghanistan, I thank you for this article. I believe that you have identified the root cause of many of the military suicides that have occured. The Army is doing a pretty good job with it’s “resiliancy” campaigns, however the numbers continue to climb. My personal belief is that many of our younger troopers place a great deal of their identity in their relationship with the “significant other” and when a betrayel occurs their self esteem….core identity..self….their world seems to be over. Perhaps some believe they can hurt that person who betrayed them by ending their life.

    This isn’t the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, our best and brightest come from a society where social media, the internet, television, etc play a tremendous role in the lives of those who volunteer to train and deploy to defend our nation. As individuals, as brothers and sisters in arms we must come together as a military culture and wrap our arms around those whom we know are hurting. I am not a chaplain, I am a field artilleryman, but I do know that our chaplains are the BEST source of prevention of needless wasted life. To any and all of my fellow service members who may be contemplating this option….please…realize…that you can rebound from ANY situation. There is NO SHAME in talking to others and letting them know of your hurt. Talking to others is STRENGTH…it is freedom…we are in this mess together, and we can get out of it together.

  • GSchmalz

    Dave, 4 words for you on the 4th anniversary….Mike Medders, Brave Rifles!

    • David French

      Yes sir. I think about Mike every day.

  • Joe Bruce

    Is anybody even warning soldiers that immoral sexual activity is a risk factor for suicide? Why not? Political correctness trumps human life? The Left sees religion as the boogeyman at every turn, but I think the UCMJ rules against adultery and fornication were put in place to preserve order and ultimately to protect soldiers psychologically, moreso than for religious purposes (although that of course is important too.) Certain realities of human sexuality should be considered before bluntly surging forward with absolute gender equality as an ideology in the military. I think failing to do this is why integrating women into the military on such a large scale has mostly been disastrous, especially since enforcement of the UCMJ code of sexual conduct has been lax. I think allowing open homosexuality now can only aggravate the problem. In civilian life, the rate of suicide that ends in death (i.e., “successful” suicide) is much higher for men than for women, and I can’t even find that breakdown for the military so apparently nobody is even examining how suicide affects males and females differently. How suicide may differ between males and females has to be taken into account when considering measures to reverse this problem. Again, the PC prohibition against recognizing gender differences rears its ugly lethal head. We are in a deep hole. Let’s start digging ourselves out and no option should be off the table because of political correctness, including encouraging the practice of Christianity as a protecting factor for our soldiers.

    • b.

      the PC prohibition against recognizing gender differences rears its ugly lethal head. We are in a deep hole…

      Yes, I think of this everytime I read about suicide. I think young men become soldiers to participate in the protection of their community, which is heroic, which should give meaning to their lives but doesn’t.

      My Dad told young men in his care, “God, Family, Country… in that order.” And he was right. If these young men don’t have God, who do they have? Yes I understand that a lot of mental illness is medical and can be treated with medicine and well-intentioned salaried psychiatrists for whom Faith is just one tool in the toolkit. And then when that’s not enough? Who can say “no don’t kill yourself” and be believed by a young man in extremis?

  • http://peoplepc.com Brenda Bamburg

    Thank you for this article, I pray it will help us all look around us & be aware of soldiers that come home & need our help!!! You R so right so many come home to no one!

  • Keith Pavlischek

    Excellent. David, drop me a note via email. would like to touch base off line s/f –kjp

  • Richard

    Excellent stuff. I work for the Army JAG corps as well. I have often thought part of the reason for this mess is we don’t stress often enough the Lutheran/Reformed concept of vocation–and what it means as a soldier; I don’t recall hearing any chaplain talk about this in the 20 years I have been with the Army.

    • David French

      Interesting, Richard. I suspect you’re right, and introducing that concept to our Christian soldiers could be very meaningful .

      • Richard

        David,
        Gene Veith, a terrific writer and Lutheran, has done great work talking and writing about vocation, drawing mainly on Luther’s writings. “God at Work” by Veith is a terrific book on vocation. Also, check out what he wrote on the subject of soldiers (it got him in hot water with the more liberal set of the Lutheran Church): http://www.worldmag.com/2005/02/onward_christian_soldiers

        • David French

          Thanks much. I’ll check it out.

    • John

      As an active Army Chaplain I can say that more and more Chaplains do discuss the concept of calling and vocation from a spiritual perspective quite often. I teach ethics and moral leadership classes at the FA School and make this a point to discuss because of the incredible demands made on Soldier and Family alike, to include exteneded Families. Unfortunately, this concept can not have the desired effect overnight and will take time. Rest assured Chaplains are taking this approach. On another note, Mr. French’s comment about coming from broken homes. But included in this is the Army’s willingness to relax enlistment criteria in order to meet quotas. In doing so the Army shaped the current environment that contributed to this crisis. One solution that seems to be left unsaid surrounds a comprehensive pychological eval prior to enlistment or commissioning. All entree’s into militiary service must undergo significant physical exams to join, so I have asked to leaders before, why not pyschological evals to determine the fitness and capability of people to pyschological join the profession of arms. One other issue that needs to be addressed is that current leadership, military and civilian alike, compound this issue by attempting to create a pyscho-moral-spiritual system that teaches Soldiers to compartmentalize their lives. As long as a Soldier can perform their jobs, everything else should be neatly compartmentalized. The catastrophic consequence is that compartmentalization doesn’t work, and often results in psycho-moral struggles that either lead to battlefield misconduct (see Abu Ghraib, Mamudiyah, Afghan kill platoon) or to cognitive struggles that lead to increased suicide. Suicide safety standowns, while attempting to address a serious problem, neglect to address what I note above needs to be addressed- pre-enlisting/commissioning full psychological evals, and teaching Soldiers that total Soldier fitness in not built on compartmentalization, but full integration of all that makes us human to include our spiritual nature which provides a sense of calling, meaning and hardiness to endure and overcome all issues- personal, professional or in our Army’s case combat. Pro Deo et Patria—

  • Rupert Fiennes

    I suspect a partial solution is within your grasp. From WW2 onwards, there has been agreement that more than 200-240 combat days produce a surge in what the USA called “combat fatigue” cases. The standard tour length in the US Army is 12 months, with 2 weeks off half way through. This needs to change, and the current drop to 9 months is not enough.

    • David French

      Marines have had shorter (but more frequent) tours — I’m not sure they’ve had lower suicide rates. It’s worth exploring.

  • charlie

    I lost my first team leader, a platoon sgt, an SOI platoon mate, and later one of my Marines to suicide. The likelihood of functionally athiest Marines (I assume the same is true of soldiers) seeking out or receiving care from Chaplains is….. low. Similarly, only one of those Marines had just lost his family; the other three were unmarried and without significant other. The effect I saw for two of them was just the final ability to release – as they left the war for the civilian world or a support installation, all that they had buried, the tight wind they had kept on themselves to maintain operations, came loose and came loose too fast.

    Trying to push sessions with Chaplains or the wizard is only going to cause resistance to those paths. But the Sir here is absolutely correct to zero in on some major root causes – including infidelity. It is against the UCMJ and to our shame it is an Article that we all to rarely enforce. In addition, we as an institution need to do a better job teaching and training to the concept of the “whole Marine” or “whole Soldier”. The vast majority of junion personnel I counsel are in debt. Their parents never taught them how to be successful in marriage or in money (and the two are often related). That’s an obvious gap we can fill – Dave Ramsey has a military program; if we can leverage something like that, it will reduce alot of stressers. Deliberately focusing on maintaining the health of soldiers/Marines marraiges as the readiness issue that it is can generate similarly powerful returns. But for the guilt? The sudden realization that without war everything seems fake and tasteless, that your life seems empty and useless? My God and my Family got me through that. I have no idea how to teach that to my Marines.

    Maybe we can attack some of the root causes for the next generation. But for the guys currently living with demons, platitudes about ‘being there for them’ and endless safety briefs seem useless; CYA-style papering over the problem. The idea that senior leadership seems to have that it actually has significant influence over the thoughts and behaviors of the men (and women) they command from a distance is… well it would be funny if it wasn’t sad. I think we may just be in – despite our best efforts – for a bit of a wave in suicides as the war winds down and people finally get off the deploy-train-deploy-train-deploy cycle. Which sucks. Losing people tires your soul.

    • David French

      Thanks, Charlie, for your comment. And you’re so right that the bureaucracy’s response can never truly be adequate. Bureaucracies can’t repair the human heart, and bureaucratic responses so often seem mass-produced rather than individually-designed.

  • Jeff Sherman

    David,
    Excellent article. As a fellow Army JAG veteran of Diyala province, I love to hear your views of the State Dept removing the MeK from the terror list.

    Jeff

    • David French

      Jeff, at the risk of sounding simplistic, I say “play with fire and expect to get burned.” I realize we need to cultivate opposition groups in Iran, but MeK?

  • MelindaM

    As a older woman who looks back on her personal story of rape by a fellow soldier, I am stunned at how slow the military has been in helping rape victims. I was raped 35 years ago while tutoring a fellow classmate and I never saw it coming. We were in the Photogrammetry course at Ft. Huachuca. The days that followed I was in a fog of shock and had nowhere to turn. If a rape was reported back then, the soldier was sent packing, ending any dream of having a military career. I kept my mouth shut, devised a plan to get transferred to another school at another post far from Ft. Huachuca. I was lucky. But years of silence and denial does not bury the horror of rape. Luckily, I did hear about treatment at the VA. I’m getting counseling and even got a 70% disability rating. What bothers me is a study shows the same percentages of rape happening to both sexes are equal. Where are these soldiers turning for help? They are still being kicked out of the military for reporting their rapes. How many rapes are related to suicides or murders? Someone has to take the investigation of rape away from the commanders and given to a Military Sexual Trauma Criminal Division. Is anyone listening? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the causes of suicide. I’m asking someone to take the initiative to connect rape to murder and suicide rates in the military. Are you listening?

  • http://www.arealeducation.com Belinda French

    We appreciate you David.

  • Gary B.

    David – is it your experience that soldiers are more at risk when they are deployed or when they return home? Your write up would indicate the latter, but I have a nephew who shot and killed himself while on his second tour in Iraq. He was single (although I don’t know the details of his love life), and while his parents were divorced, he came from what I would say was an arguably “strong” Christian family. I do know that he had a friend replace him on a mission in his first tour and his friend was killed on that mission, so that there was certainly a lot of guilt. Many of us thought his second tour might help him work through the guilt and get past it, but tragically it did not.

  • Pingback: Stories I’ve Found, 9/28/2012 « homiliesandstraythoughts

  • Tim

    I hold you and the returning soldiers in my heart. Peace.

  • Eddie Greenberg

    David French gives us a gripping narriative here on “Thoughts of War, Loss and Suicide”. I agree that a strong support system helps returning soldiers to re-integrate back to civilian life. I think that our faith based communities must do much more to keep up the spiritual strength of our veterans. Also the VA seems hopelessly inadequate for several wars going on at the same time, and the returning soldiers that have done multiple combat missions. Somehow more money must be found to improve a much higher standard of services at the VA than what have now.


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