Some random thoughts on suicide

I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.

Kate Marsh Roof Journal

In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh –  kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.

One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.

Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.

When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.

My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.

A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.

It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.

For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.

All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanicIt was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”

More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.

For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die everyday by suicide.

Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.

Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.

It started with a front page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.

Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.

Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24 year old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.

There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.

Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.

The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.

Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s.  Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.

Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.

While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is major youth problem.

Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.

If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.

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#JadeHelm

So no shit, there I was.

Driving between Dallas and Fort Hood, returning from a recon for a funeral detail.

There I was, at a nondescript rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In uniform.

I paid for my coffee and waited for a fellow soldier to pay for his Red Bull when an older man approached the counter. He was about my height, balding, overweight with a stained, sleeveless cutoff shirt. He looked me square in the eyes, making sure we were locked in.

With both hands pressed against the counter holding him up, he looked at me hard and asked with a straight and serious face: “Jade helm?”

I may or may not have responded with a sarcastic remark.

Without going into the details, the rest of the conversation revolved around preachers, preparations, and treason.

Without question, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in regards to civilian-military relations, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anti-military rhetoric, having been a part of veterans issues in New York City and attending graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In those settings, challenges towards my military service usually resulted in me thinking critically about my decision to serve, and eventually hardening that resolve through deliberate thought.

In this instance, being called treasonous by an angry Texan, I wonderd what might be sitting on his belt. I got out of there as fast I could.

It’s interesting – and a little scary – to read on the internet about this group of people worried about an obscure military exercise. It’s a completely different and strange thing to actually be confronted by it and challenged by it.

I didn’t like it.

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End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

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End of War: Adjusting to Garrison Life

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Reintegration, block leave, initial reset.

A huge source of reintegration frustration comes from transitioning from an environment where leaders at every echelon have more autonomy and control over their formations than they do back at home. What you actually have to do on a day-to-day basis seems to be more tightly controlled at home station than it was forward deployed.

The quicker a leader makes that realization, the quicker he or she can stop raging against the machine and get on board for the big win.

At the platoon level, you go from being able to see the platoon – actually, physically see them – on a daily basis, to losing them to a never-ending stream of details, appointments, and mysteries.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

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Should an Infantry Platoon Leader already have a CIB before deploying?


War in 2014/2015 was very much about just trying to get outside of the wire. It wasn’t easy. In 2003, a quick check in with the CP via ICOM was enough to get you to at least leave the wall of your firebase to investigate something just outside – alone. Now, the massive CONOPs produced for a mission are sent up days and weeks in advance of SP, and scrutinized by just about everyone in the chain of command and beyond before getting the ok. To get outside of the wire feels like a victory in itself.

And to engage the enemy, a blessing from above.

During this last deployment, I watched with interest as other lieutenants jockeyed to get on a mission – any mission – mostly so they could score a Combat Infantryman Badge. In other deployments, firefights were more prevalent, and entire units would get blanket CIB orders. Today, there’s a bunch of paperwork that has to get done, sworn statements, PowerPoint slides depicting the fight, and drone footage if possible. The requirements at times become forensic!

So to get to the point I led with in the post’s title, young infantry platoon leaders who didn’t have a CIB tended to position themselves however they could and within the scope of their influence to get on missions. This, in turn, usually meant a mission for the platoon or at least a part of the platoon, putting them out there and at risk. In plainspeak, the eagerness to get “after it” and earn combat badges acts as a significant influence on a leader’s motivation to volunteer or otherwise try to get outside of the wire and on mission.

On the other hand, as a platoon leader who already had a CIB from a prior deployment, I felt no urge to volunteer myself or the platoon for any unnecessary missions just to get us out there and perhaps have a chance at getting the award. I often wonder how my behavior might have been different if I didn’t have a CIB. Would it have resulted in me jockeying the platoon to get out more? What might have happened?

In saying all of this, I’m not putting a value judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe we want young PLs to be trying to get out as much as possible (although I tend to think not). And even with all of the jockeying, I didn’t see any PL needlessly put his soldiers at risk for some metal – although the point of this post is to say that it is precisely that which is possible.

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The Fire of COIN is Gone

The_Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa_-_Dream_1_-_YouTube

As I was getting out of the Army in 2006, the debate about “how to win” in Iraq and Afghanistan was heating up, and counter-insurgency (COIN) was gaining traction as the “graduate level of war.” As a college student who liked to read about what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an interesting time. I enjoyed reading about junior officers struggling to make an impact, and the importance of the “strategic corporal.” I told friends that getting out of the Army in 2006 felt a lot like being taken out of the game at halftime and having to watch the rest from the sidelines.

COIN was hot. Very smart and eager men and women ground themselves to the bone trying to figure out what it was and how to employ it. It provided an organizing purpose to be excited about. Field manuals, books, debates, blogs, dreamy instructional videos – it was the constant topic of the day.

And now it’s dead.

No one is really talking about “winning” anymore, because the wars just kind of faded away. Back in the Army, no one is really talking about COIN or strategy. We lack that kind of overarching purpose to drive us on.

In the midst of cutbacks, drawdowns, and realignments, I think I am starting to see a trend towards what the “next big thing” is in terms of organizing principle, something to get excited about. It seems that what the Army struggles with today is how to satisfy all of the ever-increasing demands placed on it while still empowering junior leaders and building lethal teams. It’s not as exciting as COIN, and it doesn’t get any cool monikers like “the graduate level of war,” but effective management in the 21st century Army seems to be the holy grail. It feels like in order to accomplish everything that is being asked, something (and likely, many things) have to fall off the table.

The new COIN isn’t getting simply back to basics, exactly, but more like figuring out what a true modern Army looks like, how we train, and how we fight. If the wars never happened, what would the Army have become? It feels like that’s where we are, or where we’re trying to get to.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Moments of Dread and Waiting

Not much to say on this, other than there are often moments during a deployment where there is an event, there is a report, and there is a lot of time spent waiting for the other foot to drop. What is going to be the result of this? Who is going to get fired?

What may have seemed like a big deal in the moment may be ridiculously insignificant by the time it makes its way up the flagpole. Other times the lamest things become huge deals.

The recent infusion of the immediacy of communication in a deployed zone heightens this phenomenon.

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Afghanistan Post-Mortem: Adhan during a mortar attack

Oh puh-leaz.

Early one morning, sleep was interrupted by a mortar attack.

Generally speaking, the scariest part of an indirect fire attack is the adrenaline spike that occurs as a result of alarm – something I experienced during the Scud attacks of early 2003 as well. The speed in which someone needs to launch a mortar attack while also avoiding being killed in a counter-attack – usually – prevents any reliable accuracy.

So the alarm goes off and you kind of wait for the boom, and imagine for a half-second what it would be like for a fist sized piece of shrapnel to come flying at your neck.

I was already awake, getting ready to go to the gym. The mortar exploded with a dull thud far from our area, and the platoon went back to sleep. I started walking to the guard towers to check on the guys. As I was walking, I heard the the low melodic sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting through the still night from a nearby mosque.

I remember physically laughing at how cliché that was.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: The DFAC at the Edge of the World

There was a small post that we visited from time to time, to move in or out personnel and equipment. It was hours away by vehicle and we really didn’t like going there. It was far from the big American bases and the terrain was mountainous and nasty.

We called it Mordor.

The first time we went to Mordor, we arrived in the middle of the night. For security reasons, no lights were kept on at night, so the base was completely dark. Just outside of the main gate, we were met by a small group of Americans in the darkness, wearing helmets and night vision goggles. We were dropping off a few people and would only be on the ground for less than an hour. Our helmeted American hosts said they had a small dining facility on the compound and we were welcome to grab some snacks and drinks before the long drive back to our base. He pointed somewhere deeper into the darkness before dissapearing.

With the bulk of the platoon waiting at the trucks, a few of us made our way into the darkness. We walked through a small gate and along a small road. Eerily quiet trucks zoomed past us, literally brushing up against us as we tried to make out the dark figures in the back, lounging as the faint sound of their trucks faded into the darkness.

We kept walking, up a hill now, eventually seeing a single source of dull red light over a indistinct door. We were told that the red light would mark the entrace to the dining facility.

We opened the door and entered, finding ouselves suddenly bathed in bright, fluorescent white light. I squinted and rubbed my eyes as my pupils adjusted. Sinks lined the wall, with small soap dispensers above them and clean mirrors to look at yourself. A corkboard across from the sinks listed MWR events taking place on the small post, as well as information on the Army’s SHARP and EO programs. The small group I was with must have looked a bit perplexed, as the attendant – a junior soldier sitting at a small register – interrupted our bewilderment by informing us that the dining facility was about to close, and he needed to scan our ID cards.

We scanned our ID cards at the register and then walked into the dining facility, loading up our cargo pockets with Rip-Its and cookies before dissapearing back into the darkness, looking for our trucks.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Fallen Soldier Ceremony

One late evening, my phone rang in the middle of the night. I answered it, expecting some emergency or another. It was the Operations Sergeant Major. A soldier in the command had been killed and he was being flown from our airfield to another, en route home. I needed to get the platoon together, he said, for a fallen soldier ceremony.

My commander had just flown in a few hours earlier, and when the platoon sergeant started rounding everyone up for a very strange midnight formation, they all figured it was the CO, pissed about something he had observed.

Once everyone was together, we briefed them on what we knew (very little) and moved to the flight line.

In other years, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to rally the hundred or so soldiers it takes to form an unbroken chain of troops to create a corridor between the aircraft and the hospital. But in 2014, it took a lot of phone calls and maybe even some personal favors.

We all stood there in the dark on the asphalt, not really knowing what was going on. Nearby crew chiefs conducted final preparations for the flight. It was dark, quiet, humid, and groggy.

Eventually, we all started forming the corridor in an orderly, military fashion, without ever having anyone tell us what to do. It all kind of just happened.

Time passed, and the door of the non-descript building that served as the mortuary affairs office opened up. Large men carried the flag-draped casket inbetween the two ranks of soldiers forming the hundred meter or so corridor to the waiting Blackhawk.

Someone called us to present arms, and we did.

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