Mental health and suicide in the Army – A lesson from Mass Effect

Kelly Chambers. BA, Psychology.

Originally published in 2012.

This past week has seen a couple of sobering reports released by the Pentagon concerning suicide in the military. The first confirmed that in the first 155 days of 2012 there have been 154 confirmed suicides by active duty servicemembers across the force. 136 servicemembers were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

On Wednesday, suicide was named as the second highest cause of death for servicemembers (after combat), outpacing car accidents, cancer, and other causes of death.

Suicide has been a growing problem for the Army over the past ten years. Understandably, people often point to the pace of deployment and the over-stretching of the all-volunteer force as the likely antagonizer. It makes sense to assume that deploying the same people over and over again might result in an increase in mental health issues (which it might). But in the Army’s 2009 study on suicide, 79% of soldiers who committed suicide had one or no deployments. So while the pace of deployments might have an effect on overall mental health, it does not correlate with the increase in suicides.

What this means is that we still do not know why this is happening.

For its part, the Army has worked hard to try to combat suicide. Even before I got out of the Army in 2006, suicide was already a topic that was treated seriously by commanders. If someone threatened to kill himself – even in jest – it was a threat that needed to be taken seriously.

I’ve been back in the Army for under a year, but I have already seen the introduction of some great programs that are intended to get ahead of mental health problems and ultimately suicide. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a program designed to build “resilience” in soldiers (and family members) to prepare them for the rigors of not only combat and military service, but life in general.

I have not taken the Master Resilience Trainer Course (yet) but I have taken some of the individual modules while at IBOLC. Without question, the program requires a “buy in” from the participant. Essentially, the person engaging in CSF needs to “want” to get better or become more resilient. In a military where a mental health stigma still exists, getting that “buy in” is the hard part. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take the course before leaving Fort Benning. I’ve already bought in.

Anyway, like the title of this post hints, I’m going to talk about Mass Effect. Readers of this blog know that I take inspiration from fantasy – be it art, music, or video games. I’ve been playing the series for the past couple of months and recently began playing Mass Effect II. One of the things that stuck me was the presence of Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy. Kelly serves as Commander Shephard’s Executive Assistant, but she also serves as the chief mental health officer. Her job is to monitor the mental health of the entire crew to ensure that any problems can be addressed before they come to fruition. It struck me as the kind of thing that would be helpful at the platoon, company, or battalion level.

Given the nation and the Army’s shortage of mental health professionals, it would be aspirational at best to try to implement something like that across the force.

Still, it made sense to me that there should be someone – a human being – monitoring the mental health of the fighting force over a period of time. Questionnaires and tests are okay, but they lack the understanding that a person who has been around for months or years would have. I think if CSF is implemented effectively across the Army, the platoon MRT might serve this role. While not a true mental health specialist, this would be preferred to the little that is in place right now.

Be it mental health specialists at the platoon/company/battalion level, effective use of the CSF program, or something we haven’t though of yet, it is clear that something more needs to be done to address suicide in the force. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but when I see something that I think might be helpful, I’ll bring it up. Thus, the vignette from Mass Effect.

Here is a great resource from the Army G1 on Suicide Prevention.

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The Keepers of the FOB

Originally published in 2015.

The other day, as I exited my room, there was an older man in civilian clothes with a clipboard putting a fire extinguisher back into its wall-mounted cradle nearby. I nodded to the worker and he barely nodded back. A few days earlier, there was a small fire and all of the fire extinguishers were used and then seemed to dissapear.

And now, a few days later, they were recharged and back in their original place. No coordinations were made.

Something I’ve noticed more on this deployment than previous ones is the level of maintenance and upkeep that occurs on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). While some of it is done by military personnel, much of the day-to-day life functions are carried out by private contractors and local workers. It all kind of happens in the background, wrenches turning, equipment moving, fire extinguishers being replaced, all without anyone ever really noticing or even asking.

It reminded me of the Keepers on the Citadel (from Mass Effect). We’re warned early on not to mess with them; their origins are mysterious, but hey, they keep things running so why mess with a good thing?

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On Morale

EIB

Originally published in 2015, and still true.

Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.

I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.

Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.

Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.

morale |məˈral|
noun
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.

That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.

This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.

Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.

Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.

At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming scarcer, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.

Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.

Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.

It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15 (+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.

When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.

Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.

Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.

This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.

On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.

Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have a significant effects over time.

There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.

Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like the elite Counter Terrorism Service, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose? Skull maks?

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Leadership through Group Text

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

One of the first things I noticed upon re-joining the Army a few years ago, besides the proliferation of hand sanitizer, was how widespread smartphone use had become. For good or for ill, they are here. The ire of Commanders and NCOs everywhere is soldiers sitting around the company area, drumming away on their smartphones.

And like other industries, the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone means that there is an expectation that you can be contacted at just about any time. Add to this the fact that in the Army “you’re a soldier 24 hours a day,” and there is now a built in expectation to be completely reachable through the marriage of duty and technology.

There is so much that can be written about smartphones, connectivity, and the expectations therein as they relate to the military, but I wanted to address the prevalence of the group text message as a means of putting out information.

In the pre-smartphone era, vital information would either be put out in a meeting and subsequently disseminated or there would be a final formation that would set the conditions for the next day. If a leader wanted to make changes to the plan after that time, it would have to be done through a phone chain, which was tedious and painful. Therefore, leaders were generally less likely to change things on the fly because of a late night good idea.

Today, you can check your weather app, see it’s going to be colder than you thought tomorrow and just send a group text out at 2045 and expect everyone to be wearing full winter PTs the next morning.

“I didn’t get the text.”

Leaders used to be extra sure everyone understood the expectations for the next day, which forced a deliberate thought process that allowed for contingencies. Now, the fact that we have the ability to instantaneously broadcast orders and intent allows us more flexibility – which is a good thing, kind of. We don’t have to go through that deliberate thought process – which frees us up to do other things, whatever those things may be.

The power to send group texts makes the rapid dissemination of information possible, where a face-to-face meeting was once required.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Didn’t you get my text?”

Simply sending a group text message, though, does not guarentee the message was received. We’re still figuring it out, and etiquette and norms have yet to be developed. To me, it seems a good general rule to send an acknowledgement that you have read, digested, and will comply with a message, whether it comes over the radio, email, or group text.

The fact that the smartphone occupies the same space that look at memes and play games as well as put out “mission-type orders” makes the medium feel not as serious. This is why you might get a message like “where r u” from an NCO at a random time, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Smartphones aren’t going away, so it’s a matter of finding ways to better use them in a way that makes sense. But if you’ve ever had to suffer through an Army group text argument, usually late at night, on a weekend, likely fueled by alcohol, then you will question whether they are truly worth it.

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The Ghost of Iraq

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

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Leadership: Be Ready on Day One

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

One of the hardest parts about assuming a leadership position in the military is realizing that no one is waiting for you, and really, no one cares. To you, it feels like things have been building towards that moment, and really, they have.

For you.

Training, self-development, “rowing,”: finally getting to step in front of soldiers is the end of a long process of getting there.

For you.

For them, things have been going for a long time. They’re really not that interested in how big a deal this is for you, other than wondering whether things will get better (if they’re bad) or if things will get worse (if they’re good).

On top of that, it’s likely that you, as the smart new leader, already have a plan for how you’re going to lead. Maybe the plan is to show up and assert dominance through a gut-checking speed run. Or maybe you plan on staying silent and in the background, quietly observing how things run before making any significant changes.

Likely, no matter the plan, there’s this feeling that this is the beginning, a fresh start.

For you.

For them, it’s just another day. They might be worn out, just coming off of a deployment or an NTC rotation. They might have been sucking on red cycle, doing laborious details for months. Or they might be relatively fresh, having just come off of leave.

Either way, it’s not a brand new start. There’s a vibe that courses through the unit that is informed by the recent and not-so-recent past, significant events, personalities, ass-chewings, and loads of other inputs that you are likely completely unaware of.

Even knowing that, which you do because you’re a smart new leader, it will still feel like the beginning. You’ll get there and begin executing your plan.

In the combat arms, this would ideally look like a settling in period where you gauge the unit and get to know people, followed by a train up period where you slowly get them where you want them to be, and then the unit “peaks” just at the same time as you get on the plane for a combat deployment. You go on the deployment, win the war, and then come back home, go on leave, and transition out. Very neat, very perfect.

As it happens, the universe is conspiring against you, and something will invariably get in the way of the grand plan. It could be your commander, a subordinate, a family member, a death, a suicide, infidelity, a no-notice deployment – the lists goes on.

The point is, you have to be ready to be the man on day one. The hardest decision you make during your time as leader might be in the first month, or week, or day. It can be terribly infuriating to have something interfere with the plan – YOUR plan.

But without question, something will absolutely get in the way of the things you want to do and accomplish. It’s just a matter of when. And like I said, there is a pulse that runs through the unit that has been there long before you and it continues to beat, even as you sit in the commander’s chair plotting the grand scheme. The only variable is when the big event will happen. Will the decisive point be right where you want it, when your feet are firmly planted and you fully understand what you’re dealing with. Or will it be when you first arrive and have no idea what the hell is going on, knocking you off of your feet?

You don’t really get much of a say. But you have a responsibility to be ready and own it, whatever it is and whenever it may come.

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Enjoy waking up early, be in good shape: the secret to a happy military life

Note: Originally published in 2016, but still true.

Two seemingly enduring aspects of military life are the tenets that starting things unnaturally early is best, and physical fitness is paramount. Failing to master these two things makes military life more miserable than it needs to be.

As a new private, first call was a dreaded affair. It was the time that my Team Leader or Squad Leader banged on my barracks room door in the morning to get me out of bed and ready for physical training. On most mornings first call was 0600. I tried my best to set my alarm to 0555 to get the jump on the NCOs and get into the shared latrine a few minutes before the rush of sleepy, grumpy soldiers. Most mornings, though, I let my NCO be my alarm clock so I could get the most sleep possible.

Within 25 minutes of waking up, I’d be standing in formation waiting to be subjected to whatever physical training my Squad Leader could dream up – in this case, usually a fast, long run up and down Fort Bragg’s firebreaks.

The combination of being forced to get up early and thrust into physical training makes mornings miserable for many soldiers.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the idea that the military is going to make me get up early, just about every day. Instead of resisting this and trying to eek out a little bit more sleep by waking up at the absolute last-minute, I’ve shifted my wake up time far to the left, waking up at an ungodly hour that insulates me from having to rush. This means having to go to bed early, but that is usually something I can control.

I’ve grown to not only make waking up at an early time a habit, even on the weekends, but I’ve come to enjoy the mornings more than any other time of the day because it is truly my time. What I do with it is completely up to me.

When it comes to physical training, taking responsibility for your own fitness ensures you can go to work feeling reasonably confident that you can handle whatever physical training you are forced to do.

Much of the misery that soldiers endure are connected to these two things – sleep and fitness. Waking up early and enjoying it together with staying in good physical condition can make military life a whole lot easier.

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Are our officers “Centurions?” Tactically proficient but strategically inept?

Roman Pic 14

Over the holiday break, I read two articles anchored to the Roman era to explain current issues with the modern military.

At Small Wars Journal, John Bolton writes in the Price of Professionalism that our All-Volunteer Force dangers the American republic through separating the soldier and the citizen.

Bolton writes:

“The AVF, by disconnecting the military from society, enabled a generation of American militarism, highlighted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since the AVF, American foreign policy has become overly militarized and simultaneously devoid of public consideration. These two factors are cancerous to the functioning of the American Republic. The AVF created a military unimaginable by the Founders and unfamiliar to its people.”

In the Autumn 2015 issue of Parameters, Jason Warren compares the (successful) modern Army officer to the Roman Centurion – a tactically proficient leader of a roughly company-sized group of soldiers. That is, our officer career path selects and promotes those officers who demonstrate tactical proficiency at the company level, without ever really developing or selecting those who show promise for strategic thinking.

The “centurion” model is one that is very easy to see inside of a Brigade-sized element, but once outside of the Brigade, it is precisely those officers who performed well at the tactical level who move on to strategic positions, often without the advanced education one would expect would be necessary to perform in those roles.

Warren writes:

Army promotion soon became linked to the command of standing units, the vast majority of which operated below the strategic level. This linkage contributes to the development of an astrategic officer corps, in which some officers may disbelieve military leaders have a role in formulating military strategy. 

And…

The tactical dominion eventually became king of the realm for post-Korean War promotion, which the training revolution elevated to the throne. Summer 2004 in Iraq found Casey upon a tide of sinking strategy and he believed the war was lost before Petraeus temporarily righted the ship. Petraeus’ surge of forces was but a current of success upon an ocean of failure. Petraeus’ preference for well-educated subordinates and officer broadening soon receded with his departure to the CIA, in an Army culture hostile to non-tactical endeavors.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety. Bolton’s article tackles a much larger issue and weaves around, while Warren’s article is much more focused on the promotion of “centurion”-like Army officers.

As an aside, I still find it odd and a little off-putting that we still lionize all things antiquity. Given our unhealthy obsession with Spartans which I think is now giving way to the Vikings, I would bet many officers nod approvingly at being associated with centurions, even though the purpose of the article was to point out how ultimately limiting that is.

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Life is Strange: You can’t un-know what you already know

Gone Girl

The last episode of Life is Strange came out last week, and I rushed to finish it so as not to have the ending(s) spoiled by the internet. I didn’t think I’d be so engrossed by the game when I first read about it from eastern Afghanistan, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been so sucked into a game’s story. After each episode – and this one is no different – I suffer from a morose melancholy for a few days. From the moment the credits roll, I stumble through the drudgery of work and life, thinking about what happened and trying to make sense of it all.

I remind myself, on a number of instances, that’s it’s only a game. But that doesn’t really work.

It’s been a great journey. One that led me to think about the way we interact with one another, suicide, and how veterans are portrayed in the media.

I’m not reviewing the game here. I can’t really be objective about it because I loved it so much. There aren’t many games I would describe as beautiful, but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Like a lot of fans of the game, I’m sad that it’s over. As much as I love narrative based, choice-and-consequence games, once I finish them, they kind of lose their magic for me. I can achievement-hunt and explore the world, but I’ve already exhausted my path.

When I played Mass Effect, I played it as I think I would if I were actually Commander Shepard. When presented with choices, I chose what I thought I would choose in that circumstance. It’s for that reason that in my story, Commander Shepard never had a love interest. It’s generally frowned upon to sleep with your subordinates, as it goes.

Once I destroyed the Reapers (the only right choice), I thought about going back and replaying the game and playing as a totally different “character.” I liked the idea of doing it, and I even started, but I think I only lasted about an hour before I grew bored with it. It was hard for me to role-play the game as someone I’m not.

It was the same for Life is Strange. The decisions I made as Max were the decisions I think I would have made if I were walking in her shoes. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about how I can replay the game, to try to experience it some more. I can explore different decisions, or play as a different kind of Max, but that really doesn’t appeal to me.

I know how the story goes, and I can’t un-know what I already know.

Which leads me to the whole point of this post. A friend once described part of the problem with the civilian-miltiary divide as one that stems from the fact that once someone joins the military, they never really get out. Sure, they can separate from service, but instead of becoming a civilian, they are more likely to identify as a veteran, an identity separate from being a civilian. They’ve been militarized, and you don’t really ever become de-militarized.

Once you’re in, even when you get out, you can’t un-know what you already know.

When I finally finished Tactics Ogre last year, I wrote about how even though it felt good to finally beat it, the final playthrough was tainted by the first, some twenty years ago. The way I experienced it the first time was canon – I can’t go back and change things. And even if I do, it never feels quite right.

When a young man or woman chooses to join the military, that doesn’t become undone when they come home. They can never go back to “normal,” whatever that even means. You can’t un-know what you already know.

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Metal Gear Solid and 1960s Green Berets

Big Boss Drinking canteen

I just started playing Metal Gear Solid V. I’ve always been really fascinated with the series. I was obsessed with it for Nintendo when it first came out. It was unique and interesting.

I played it again when it came out for Playstation. I really enjoyed reading through the military lore of that game, and uncovering the deep background of Solid Snake and unpacking what the hell was going on.

I kind of stopped playing after that one. I purchased the second MGS for Playstation 2 but never made it past the opening boat scene. A buddy bought me Snake Eater but that game remained in its wrapper. I was busy with work and just never had the time to get into it.

Despite not playing the past decade of Metal Gear, I’ve kept up with the trajectory of the game through the internet. I know the series has bounced around and has revealed a comically ridiculous plot line.

Still, if there is one thing I’ve enjoyed through the series, it’s Hideo Kojima’s reverance for special operations through the past century. Because the game bounces through time, and you always play some kind of elite soldier, operators from the 1960s are held up against operators in the 2000s. With the exception of some fantasy, a lot of the field gear is accurate. The picture of Big Boss drinking from a Vietnam era canteen (still used today, by the way) is what spurred me to write about this. In the same opening scene, Big Boss is wearing an old “butt pack” on his web gear, again, consistent with the timing of this game (mid-1980s).

With the game spreadout through time periods, and weaving in and out of different eras, it makes me wonder what the real differences are in special operators on one end, and typical soldiers on the other. Is a 1960s era Green Beret similar to Persian Gulf War era Solid Snake? What about the 1980s? My gut instinct says that special operators today are much more advanced in the realm of developing physical fitness with increased knowledge and availability of nutrition and training information, but I have no way of knowing if this is actually true.

And I never see old pictures of fat special operators.

What about field craft? My gut also tells me that old school operators probably practiced better field craft than modern operators, partly because they were not so beholden to technology, and partly because they came from a different generation.

The picture of Big Boss drinking out of a Vietnam era canteen spurred me to write this. Besides getting me thinking about comparisons between eras, Hideo Kojima has always been good at getting gear generally right. In this same scene, Big Boss is wearing an old school butt pack on his web gear. On the absurdity level, he had just finished escaping a hospital while being chased by a flame monster on a unicorn.

And since I’m on the topic of Metal Gear, there’s a part of me that thinks that the whole series is complete bullshit. That the original Metal Gear for Nintendo was a stand-alone military game that featured a prominent stealth option. When they made a second one, they bolted on more of a story and then again and again as each iteration came out. I just have a hard time believing that Kojima had this nearly century long timeline and idea thought out back in the late 1980s.

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