Military Suicides: Where's the "It Gets Better" for Troops?
I've watched all of the "It Gets Better" videos that have crossed my desktop since the campaign began. In these affecting testimonials prompted by the increase in suicides of young gay men, celebrities and public figures speak out to reassure those bullied about their sexuality that the pressures do eventually ease. I sobbed listening to "Project Runway" star Tim Gunn describing his teenage suicide attempt, and I was moved to learn that senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett mentioned each of the recent victims by name as she assured lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens that their lives are precious. The response to this tragedy is heartening because the public outpouring of grief raises awareness and may save lives. But why hasn't there been the same level of concern for the epidemic of suicides among military service members?
It's pointless and petty to compare heartbreak. In the last few weeks, four young gay men have committed suicide, all in some way connected to fear, shame or isolation around the issue of their homosexuality. I'm horrified by this, and ashamed it could happen in America in 2010. I'm just as alarmed that during three days in late September, four soldiers at Ft. Hood Army base in Texas took their own lives. This is not an isolated incident. The New York Times reported Monday that 20 soldiers connected to Ft. Hood have committed suicide this year; the Army has confirmed 14 of those cases, and six are under investigation. The base's suicide rate is about four times the national average.
In fact, the Army's suicide rate overall exceeds that of the civilian population, with 160 active-duty suicide deaths in 2009 and 239 across the total Army, including the reserve component. Army suicide rates are now higher than the age- and sex-adjusted rate for the general public, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Several service-specific programs exist to counter the increase in suicides, including a just-launched Army collaboration with NIMH to help the Army develop effective strategies for mitigating suicide risk. Installations with troubling records are also targeted individually. At Ft. Campbell, Ky., for example, where there were 11 confirmed soldier suicides from January to late May in 2009, leaders called a three-day "stand-down" — military-speak for "work stoppage" — to identify issues and resources.
But sirens sound outside the armed forces only infrequently. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates spoke bluntly about military suicides in a September speech at Duke University. He outlined the dangers of the cultural divide in our country, where our force of 2.4 million active and reserve duty volunteers represents less than 1% of the population, a new low. I don't know anyone, service member or civilian, who seriously advocates a return to the draft, and Gates doesn't either, but he connected the dots. The war becomes remote when only a few experience the pain and sacrifice of long and frequent deployments, and the high suicide rate could be one result of this disproportionate burden.
Regardless of the cause, predictions are bleak. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned in late September that the number of military suicides will probably increase as large numbers of troops return home after multiple deployments. His warning follows a Pentagon task force report that found the military's suicide-prevention efforts are inadequate and inefficient.
My husband is a naval officer, so Gates and Mullen are celebrities in my circle of military families, but to most, they're no Tim Gunn. A speech at a university and a Pentagon report don't have the reach or appeal of a YouTube channel hosting an "It Gets Better" suicide-prevention campaign, where individuals as well as public figures can upload their own stories. This is one area where the military should take its cue from social media. I propose that the Defense Department create an "It Gets Better"-type outreach program for service members, encouraging troops, officers and veterans to tell their own stories of depression and despair following a wartime tour of duty, and how they handled it.
There is already an awareness that fellow warriors' stories of distress may reach suicidal soldiers in a unique way. A new Army video features a service member who successfully spotted an at-risk colleague and prevented his suicide by removing an important mechanism in his rifle. The same program encourages soldiers who need mental healthcare to take advantage of available services. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, told public health officers at Ft. Hood that he hopes the "seek help" message will encourage soldiers to overcome the longtime stigma of behavioral healthcare. But Chiarelli acknowledged that military culture has a long way to go before attitudes toward mental health shift. Indeed, speaking out about one's pain — psychic or physical — goes against an entrenched military culture of stoicism. Service members are supposed to suck it up without a word of complaint, lest they be labeled weak or suffer a career setback.
Stoicism and name-calling doesn't work. Nor do stand-downs and speeches. Individual Americans can help close the military-civilian divide by demonstrating the belief that suicides among service members demand our immediate attention as a society. Soldiers and sailors need reassurance that it gets better for them too.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of "Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War." This post originally appeared as an OpEd in the Los Angeles Times.