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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