The Spectre of Military Suicide: For Whom The Bell Tolls

Forever War

The first contact I had with suicide in the military was when I was still a Private. I remember being called down to an unscheduled formation in the courtyard along with everyone else in the company. Looking across the yard, I saw MPs walking into Alpha Company – a sister unit. The mood was quiet and somber. I asked a buddy what happened and he told me someone in Alpha Company killed himself. I nodded and remember thinking that killing yourself in the military seemed pretty strange. This was 2001 and shortly after September 11 – suicide as a military problem was not considered a “thing” at the time.

Since then, military suicide has weaved in and out of my life as I transitioned out of the Army and into the civilian world, and then back into the Army. I’ve had veteran friends who killed themselves during their struggle to make the transition to civilian life. When I see a Facebook post about a veteran friend who suddenly passes, it only takes a few hours before I start getting messages from other friends confirming that it was suicide. I’ve watched as the problem has grown larger both inside and outside of the military. Since rejoining the Army, I’ve seen it up close. I have also witnessed the shift in the way the military addresses suicide – a far cry from where we were in 2001 when it was viewed as more of a random act that couldn’t be helped.

On the morning of 2012’s mandatory “suicide standown,” I found myself waiting in line for breakfast at a DFAC at Fort Benning. Standing there, a newly-minted Second Lieutenant, I overheard two senior NCOs in front of me talking about suicide and the “bullshit” classes they would be forced to endure for the day. One of them was aggressively making his case, loudly, that he had no respect for anyone who kills themselves and that committing suicide is an act of weakness that ultimately makes the Army stronger because it gets rid of the mentally weak. This NCO claimed that he would never kill himself and had been through some tough times, thus, no one else has an excuse. The other NCO challenged him, arguing that you can’t say that you would never commit suicide because you simply don’t know the circumstances that might lead to it. This was dismissed, again, as a function of mental weakness. This NCO was sure that committing suicide was something he would never do, and since he would never do it, it’s not a real problem that the military needs to address.

Later that day I attended my own unit’s suicide standown training. The jokes leading up to the mandatory training among peers were of the “this suicide training is making me want to kill myself” variety. As depressing and lame as those jokes were, the day was not a total loss. I found myself impressed with my commander’s presentation on suicide. He internalized the problem and addressed it in a way that emphasized the seriousness of suicide without getting overly dramatic or with any of the all too common winks and nods, notions that “I’m only doing this because I have to do this.” The commander’s “buy in” of the issue translated in the way it was received by everyone in the room – you could see it on their faces. For that moment, they were listening. The key lesson that I learned that day, as a young and impressionable junior officer, is that when you address your subordinates, they’ll take it seriously if you take it seriously.

Without question, the military has gotten better in the way it addresses suicide. The old running line, that suicide is not a “real” problem in the military because the rate is lower than comparable age groups in the civilian world, or those who commit suicide are selfish or weak, is fading. There are still holdouts, like the NCO in the DFAC line at Fort Benning, but I think as more and more of our buddies kill themselves – buddies who were the badasses, the seemingly mentally strong, good soldiers – those holdouts are starting to come around. It is hard to find anyone who has been in or around the military for a few years whom suicide hasn’t touched.

What I’ve come to realize is that as a community, whether we like it or not, we are simply vulnerable to suicide right now. The Reaper is out there – a looming spectre – and he’s just looking for the right opportunity to swoop in. Every suicide should be a reminder of that – a reminder that given the right set of circumstances, the hardest men and women can be brought down from the inside out.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

It is for that reason that we should continue to talk about it and bring it up, speaking about it with conviction and “buy in” like my commander did. We shouldn’t be looking to “connect the dots” after the fact, or ramp up suicide awareness training when someone kills themselves in another unit. Just as important, is that we don’t treat the topic with so much seriousness that it becomes one that we feel uncomfortable talking about at all – which manifests itself with aggressively jumping down a soldier’s throat if they make a suicide joke or bringing the mood of a room down with an awkward transition of “And now I want to talk about something serious for a  moment.” Addressing military suicide should be routine, spoken about as casually and frequently as combating DUIs. Talking about it should be a normal part of soldiering, because right now, it is.

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Army Myths: You don’t need 100 hours to get a Volunteer Medal


[Update 29Jul15: The new AR covering 600-8-22 changed this up, and now you DO need either 500 hours of service or service over 3 years. Total bummer, really)

The Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal (MOVSM) is one of those unique awards that a soldier can get to build their rack outside of the usual suspects (AAMs, ARCOMs, NCOPD ribbons, etc.). Although it doesn’t require anything particularly heroic (Silver Star) or unusual (Prisoner of War Medal), I’d say it’s a pretty rare award to get. I don’t think I’ve actually every seen someone with one.

That said, I’ve heard it talked about a lot.

Especially at FRG meetings.

In those meetings, someone will usually remind soldiers to “log their hours” to get to a grand total of 100 hours so that they can be recommended for the MOVSM.

You do not need to rack up 100 hours of volunteer work to be recommended for the medal. In fact, there is no set requirement for how much volunteer work must be accomplished in order to get the award.

Let’s go to the doctrine:

From 600-8-22 Military Awards:


It’s clear that the award is intended to be presented to recognize volunteer service over an extended period of time, not a flash in the pan act of altruism. It is at the approval authority’s discretion as to what measure of service meets the criteria for this award, but there is absolutely no target mark that signifies meeting the minimum requirement for the award.

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Why I don’t use exclamation points in email anymore

Once, when I was still enlisted and new to email in the Army, I sent an email to a staff NCO requesting some information. I was a Sergeant (E5) at the time and I was emailing either a Sergeant First Class (E7) or Master Sergeant (E8) – I don’t remember exactly. I was working for a General officer at the time, and as such, my emails packed a little more “punch” because recipients knew what office it was coming from. It’s a power that can easily be abused, and can certainly piss people off if used improperly.

Anyway, I don’t remember exactly what the information I was requesting was about, but before getting to the signature block, I wrote something to the effect of “Just let me know!”

It was written to be enthusiastic.

I sent the email and didn’t think much of it. Later that afternoon, I was walking back into the office where I found the angry NCO with a printed piece of paper (my email) gesturing aggressively to the Lieutenant who served as the General’s aide-de-camp. When the NCO saw me, he turned to me and asked “What the hell is this? You don’t tell me to just let you know!

I shot him a confused look and he showed me the email with my statement highlighted.

Again I looked at him confused, not understanding.

“It sounds like you’re trying to order me around there, Sergeant,” he said, with extra emphasis on the word sergeant.

“Oh, no, I was just trying to sound enthusiastic, like, let me know!” I said “let me know” with an un-natural upward inflection to emphasize the point.

“Well that shit doesn’t translate in email.”

It was an embarressing lesson. Since then, I rarely use exclamation points in email because I fear how it might be read on the other side. Sometimes, before sending an email, I’ll read it over and find places where an exclamation point would add a spark of life. I delete the period and replace it with an exclamation point and watch the blinking cursor flash at me for a few moments. I think of that angry NCO with his printed piece of paper and the highlighted line and I delete the exclamation point, replacing it with the boring and very safe period.

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The Battle of Fabul

The Battle of Fabul, a sequence early in Final Fantasy IV, still represents one of the most exciting pieces of gameplay I ever experienced – especially in a role playing game.

There are a number of things that heighten the tension. This is the first castle that the player is able to get to before The Red Wings show up to capture the crystal, so there is a feeling of “hold the line” that settles in early. Before the battle begins, the game does away with music initially and there is just silence and the sounds of footsteps as Fabul’s soldiers move about, preparing the defenses. When the first wave of soldiers show up, the traditioinal battle music is replaced by one of the “boss” themes, which hints to the player that this is going to be more serious. They also keep the theme going even between the multiple battles, which helps keep the tension up. After the first fight, The Red Wings bomb Fabul, which is in line with what happened earlier at Castle Damcyan when their crystal was taken. As a player, it really felt like you were “in it” and by being there before The Red Wings show up, there is a chance at actually protecting the crystal. The battle begins, and the party is constantly falling back, deeper into the castle (despite always winning the battles). Of course, Edward trips en route to the Crystal Chamber, requiring the team to rescue him, which admittedly is less dramatic than it sounds. Finally, the party finds itself in the chamber, ready to hold out, when an old friend shows up in one of the series’ great plot twists.

The whole thing is just really well done. The first time you go through it, without knowing exactly what is going to happen and whether or not there are potential multiple outcomes, it really pulls the player into the game.

Also, I imagine Fabul rhymes with Kabul.

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Pas de Deux with American Sniper


American Sniper did well this past weekend, smashing box office records and garnering 6 Academy Award nominations. It has also been making waves online, as a number of articles were written in the past few weeks either praising it, critiquing it, or placing it somewhere in a gray area.

I didn’t see it (I’m still in Afghanistan), but I intend to, when I get home, on a big screen in the theater. The last time I wrote about a war film was when I posted a few thoughts on Lone Survivor, which I still haven’t seen for reasons I elaborate on in that post. I really like war films, but not for the violence. I like war films that capture the absolute absurdity of war and showcase the limits of heroism. For that reason, Full Metal Jacket is still my favorite movie and I look forward to the Iraq and Afghanistan version of it.

I was never really that excited for American Sniper. When I originally saw the well-done trailer, it all seemed so ho-hum to me – another story of a Special Operator that would undoubtedly lionize and champion the role of the “warrior” absent the black context of the war(s) itself. Additionally, I have less and less of a stomach for war movies about our modern conflicts. We’re still in Afghanistan and we’re back in Iraq. While I don’t think that in order to make a good war film the war necessarily has to be over, it seems to be a good general rule.

There are two running lines in the veteran community about American Sniper; 1) it’s the best modern war movie about the current conflicts, and 2) it’s a caricature of war that feeds into America’s obsessions with its military.

The first point of view is is championed by Paul Rieckhoff in an essay for Variety. In it, he writes:

I’ve seen just about every film about the Iraq War ever made. I’ve produced and associate produced a few. I even appeared in one (for about a millisecond). And without a doubt, “American Sniper” is the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made.

It’s a strong opening statement. While Paul goes on to admit that the story isn’t terribly complex, it gets the war better than any other war film about Iraq. He even compares American Sniper to Full Metal Jacket, which I have a hard time believing, especially because FMJ is a work of fiction whereas American Sniper is based on the real life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. I’ve disagreed with Paul in the past concerning war films. I actually liked The Hurt Locker, despite its exaggerations, whereas Paul made it very clear that he did not.

Still, I appreciated Paul’s thought process on one of the reasons he did like American Sniper:

Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it. And as an activist and as a veteran, I’m OK with that. After a decade of working on veterans issues with an unprecedentedly disconnected civilian population, I’ll take it. Like Chris Kyle was, every one of America’s newest generation of 2.8 million veterans is still processing the war ourselves. And will be doing so forever. And we know that films like “American Sniper” may bring civilians closer to us than anything else.

It’s a good point. It’s been over a decade and the closest thing to realistic depictions of military service that are widely viewed have been in the form of video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield (which isn’t saying much). Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker bombed at the box office. Now, finally, we have a film that prominently features Iraq that is actually entertaining, critically acclaimed, and being widely seen.

On the other side of the spectrum, Alex Horton writes in the Guardian that the movie is another in a series of films that highlight the exploits of special operations forces while dismissing the much more prevalent experience of the conventional military that have rotated in and out of theater for over a decade. He writes:

These films have the potential to distort how the United States views its own history and its troops. The everyday stories of war are background noise. We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan.

It’s a good point, and one that I think lends ammunition to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that the American public has a “cartoonish” idea of what the military is and how it operates, largely based, as Alex suggests, on films like Zero Dark Thirty and now, American Sniper.

He also gets in this gem, which he says was to see if I’d notice:

People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty.

I noticed.

Alex’s point is one that I’ve made before as well: whether we like it or not, the films become the historical record of the conflict. When I think of Vietnam, I think of the movies I’ve seen that tell me what it was like. When tomorrow’s children wonder what the hunt for Osama bin Laden was like in the first decade of the 21st century, they’ll think of Zero Dark Thirty. And when they want to know what Iraq was like, they’ll think of American Sniper.

Of course, any criticism about getting details right or exploring the full context of war are always dismissed as either not the job of the filmmaker or brushed aside as secondary to capturing the spirit of the war-fighter:

“And for me (Bradley Cooper), and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier…It’s not a political discussion about war, even…It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home, and we have to take care of them.”

The same thing was said over forty years ago, when another film that lionized special operators was made during the heat of the Vietnam War, The Green Berets:

In defense of the film, John Wayne said his “motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.”

Rightfully so, war is a topic that people get emotional about. Servicemembers and veterans do not get a monopoly on having opinions on war, and a film that is largely based on the auto-biography of a real person is likely to receive more scrutiny than a work of pure fiction. Reactions to the film’s heroiziation of Chris Kyle have been harsh. So too is the barely latent bigotry of theater-goers who took away only hate from the movie.

All that said, I’m looking forward to seeing it (albeit, after Mockingjay, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl, and Interstellar) and like Zero Dark Thirty, I fully expect that it will be both entertaining, and overly simplistic. Pass the popcorn.

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Veterans: When I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it?

“Yeah, I think I know a thing or two about coconut bundt cake!”

The other day, when someone asked on Facebook, “Anyone else feel immense relief when arriving home alive after a long road trip?” I responded with:

I was referring to long, dangerous road trips I’ve been on while deployed, and the relief felt when you get back to the relative safety of the base.

While I was just having fun, the incident got me thinking about how veterans tend to frame everything they touch through the prism of their service. The “Condescending Army Commercial,” a spot on parody by College Humor released in 2009 is a spoof of an actual series of Army commercials that ran under the theme of “Strength for Now, Strength for Later.” In the official Army commercials, they focus on a veteran after he or she leaves the service and is back in the civilian world. When they’re faced with challenges, they are able to lean on their prior service and military experience to relate to their civilian peers.

In those commercials, after the veteran thinks back to his or her military experience, they always seem to respond in a subtely condescending tone, as if to say, “yeah, this ain’t shit compared to what I’ve been through.” The folks at College Humor picked up on that condescending tone, and thus the brilliant parody.

This isn’t just a parody of Army commercials though. Some veterans, whether it be at the workplace, college, or on social media, have a tendency to respond to any event through the prism of their service, even when it really isn’t relevant. I watch veterans constantly crowbar their service into conversations where it just sits there, awkwardly.

My favorite part in the parody is the end, where the bearded guy says: “Hey man, when I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it?”

To which, our veteran replies in a condescending tone: “Yeah, I think I can not be a codescending dick about it!”

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Army Myths: No eye-pro, No SGLI

“Dude, there was a guy over in 1st Battalion that died in a motorcycle accident, and listen to this shit – he wasn’t wearing a reflective belt, so they denied his family the SGLI.”

“Why do you have to wear eye-protection, you ask? Well first of all, if god-forbid you should get shrapnel to the face and you go blind, the Army won’t cover your medical expenses because you weren’t wearing proper PPE. Roger?”

Since I’ve been in the Army, I’ve heard variations of the above myth. Like most Army myths, there are never any first or even second-hand accounts; just stories about unidentifiable guys in other units. For the unitiated, Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, or SGLI, is the life insurance policy that all members of the Armed Forces have access to, and pretty much everyone elects to enroll in. The full coverage is $400,000, and will be paid to a beneficiary upon a servicemember’s death. As the myth goes, if a servicemember should die – be it as a result of hostile fire or simply an accident – the SGLI will not be paid if it is discovered that the servicemember wasn’t wearing a piece of normally required equipment. In most cases, I’ve heard it used in reference to motorcycle accidents and not wearing the require PPE (personal protective equipment) to include a reflective belt or vest, or not wearing eye-protection or gloves on a mission.

Of course, this is complete nonsense. It says so directly on the SGLI website on a page titled Myths and Rumors about SGLI/VGLI Insurance.

From the website:

True or False: SGLI won’t pay if I die while wearing privately purchased body armor or a privately purchased helmet.

False: SGLI claims are paid regardless of body armor or helmet type. Wearing body armor or a helmet is not a requirement for a SGLI claim to be paid.

True or False: SGLI or VGLI won’t pay if I die in a motor vehicle accident or airplane accident and wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

False: SGLI or VGLI claims are paid regardless of whether the member was or was not wearing a seatbelt.

True or False: SGLI or VGLI won’t pay if I die in a motorcycle accident and I was not wearing a helmet.

False: Your SGLI or VGLI proceeds will be paid to your beneficiary or beneficiaries, regardless of whether you were or were not wearing a helmet.

I’m almost certain that some devious NCO started this myth as a method to try to get his guys to wear the prescribed uniform. And like many other Army myths, this is one that soldiers will defend vigorously as being true, getting red in the face speaking about it, despite not having actually met or read about it actually happening.

Additionally, if it were the case that a beneficiary was denied SGLI because their loved one who died in service of their country wasn’t wearing a reflective belt, I’d like to think much hell would be raised.

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10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget

Over the years, NCOs (non-commissioned officers) have uttered little sayings or missives that have been forever etched in my mind. Whether they are true or not is not clear. Either way, I cannot forget these little sayings, and as far as I am concerned, they are the absolute truth, simply because a good NCO told me it was so:

1. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

What makes him so special?

2. Every day of PT that is missed requires two days to make up.

It’s not science, but he was wearing a Drill Sergeant hat.

3. A stretch is ineffective unless it is held for at least 15 seconds.

Because 10 seconds is too easy.

4. You really don’t want a CIB.*

There’s a lot of baggage that comes with it.

5. Never, ever, mention rain in the field.

If you do, it will inevitably rain.

6. Nothing good ever happens after someone says “watch this shit…”

But it is probably funny.

7. You can always squeeze in one more.

One more rep, one more person in the truck, etc.

8. If it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.

Unless it is stupid.

9. Fake it until you make it.

False motivation is better than no motivation.

10. If it smells clean, it is clean.

Pine-Sol the shit out of the latrine!

There are likely many more that I just can’t remember right now. If you’ve got some gems, please leave them in the comments.

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♪♫ Que Sera Sera, the PL is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do, whatever will be, will be ♪♫

You can't spell lost with out LT.

One of the unique facets of Army leadership is the concept of the leader being responsible for “all the x-element does or fails to do.” It’s an incredible level of responsibility, and it essentially applies to every echelon (i.e.; the Team Leader is responsible for all his team does or fails to do, Company Commander, Battalion Commander, etc.).

This is is how the concept usually manifests: a leader being called into his boss’ office and asked: “Why did Private Snuffy get wasted and smash all of the windows of the Generals’ residence this weekend?” The question is typically asked in a manner which suggests you had something to do with it. Likewise, if word gets around that “something bad” happened somewhere in a formation, one of the first questions asked (among officers, anyway) will likely be “Which platoon was it? Which platoon leader?”

Dumb things happen in the Army, and soldiers make mistakes. Good leaders recognize that while it is doctrinally correct that the platoon leader is responsible for everything in the platoon, good or bad, there is also an absolute limit to what he or she can immediately control. If a soldier in a platoon gets a DUI, it is likely that whole chain of command will be standing on the carpet answering for it. Ass chewings will commence, lessons will be learned, and everyone will go on about their way.

Sometimes, while taking said ass chewing, a junior leader (or even a senior leader) will feel frustrated for being blamed for the indiscretion of a subordinate who might have two or three subordinate leaders.

“How the hell was I supposed to stop Specialist Ronald from driving nude through the front gate blasting Ride of the Valkyries!?”

Without question, the reality of the doctrine is such that an individual leader cannot, within reason, fully account for the actual failures or successes of a formation. That is, the platoon leader cannot through sheer will or even the most immaculate planning and execution carry the true responsibility for success or failure. There are too many other leaders and factors involved.

FM 3-21.8 Chapter 1

But the reason this high burden remains is because without it, it lets leaders off the hook. If the platoon leader is not responsible for everything his platoon does or fails to do and can simply pass the buck to a subordinate leader for a problem soldier, there is no great incentive to shape the platoon to accomplish goals. 

The burden of leadership is absurdly high precisely because the stakes are also high – especially in combat.

Of course, like I indicated earlier, the adage is usually uttered for soldier mishaps and minor discipline infractions. The best platoon leader in history will have a soldier who inevitably does something stupid that will get the platoon leader an ass chewing or nasty email from one of his bosses. If he is wise, he will take it, learn from it, and que sera sera.

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