I was thinking about medals the other day, probably because of the new medal for drone pilots or bloggers or whatever. Somehow I started thinking about whether one could be awarded the Soldier’s Medal for suicide intervention.
Obviously, the Army has a suicide problem. Last year, as many as 349 soldiers may have committed suicide – more than were killed fighting in Afghanistan. The Army has tried, tried again, and keeps trying to find ways to fight this, but nothing seems to be working.
At the ground level, there is command emphasis on the problem, usually in the form of a mention during a weekend safety brief or as part of quarterly training requirements (PowerPoint presentations on suicide). Most soldiers can rattle off the signs of someone who may be suicidal, and many even know what to do if they notice those signs. I think the missing point is actually getting soldiers to take the next step and take action, to intervene somehow, either by notifying the commander or simply trying to talk to the person.
What about awarding the Soldier’s Medal for suicide intervention?
From AR 600-8-22:
The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, including reserve component Soldiers not serving in a duty status, as defined in 10 USC 101(d), at the time of the heroic act, who distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. The same degree of heroism is required as that of the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross. The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy. Awards will not be made solely on the basis of having saved a life.
While the regulation clearly states that a person’s life does not need to be saved in order to receive the medal, in practice, that seems to be the case. Pulling someone out of a car wreck or running into a burning building to rescue someone, those sorts of things. A number of Soldier’s Medals were awarded for actions in response to the 9/11 attacks. I remember a soldier in my unit who pulled someone out of a car wreck just off of Fort Bragg. When we found out about it the next day at formation, we all instantly said “Boom, Soldier’s Medal.”
While a suicide intervention most likely won’t put a soldier at personal risk, it does result in saving a soldier’s life.
I did some Googling to see if the Soldier’s Medal has been awarded for a suicide intervention, and I was able to find one incidence of it, although the intervention was of a dramatic nature (the soldier jumped into a river to save a woman who was trying to drown herself after she drove her car into the water). This soldier obviously put his own life at risk.
A little more searching and I found this story about a basic training soldier who received an Army Achievement Medal (AAM) for intervening in a suicide. Again, this was an intervention of last resort. It was the middle of the night, and the soldier walked in on the suicidal soldier who was in the bathroom about to hang himself. While good to see a soldier being awarded a medal for this, the AAM is pretty much the lowest medal someone can be awarded in the Army. And this was another incidence of an intervention of last resort.
What about awarding someone for getting ahead of the problem, for noticing signs, and brining attention to a troubled soldier?
With suicide being such a massive problem in the Army, and the Soldier’s Medal being the well-known award for saving someone’s life (despite the regulation), would a successful suicide intervention not merit this award?
I understand the argument against awarding the Soldier’s Medal for non-life threatening suicide intervention. One, the regulation doesn’t warrant it. Two, it might “devalue” the medal. Three, soldiers shouldn’t need an incentive to intervene to save another soldier’s life. And four, how do you “know” that an early intervention actually resulted in saving the person’s life?
For the first argument, I agree. The regulation as written and understood doesn’t allow for the Soldier’s Medal to be awarded for this. However, I think given the gravity of the current situation, an exception might be warranted either through a rewriting of the regulation or a generous reading of the current regulation. An interesting experiment would be to put someone in for a Soldier’s Medal who intervened in a suicide and see what gets kicked back.
For the second argument, I’m not so sure. This isn’t the Medal of Honor. The Soldier’s Medal is the highest award given for a non-combat act. What can be more heroic than saving another soldier’s life?
For the third argument, I agree that a soldier shouldn’t need an incentive to save another soldier’s life. However, that is the reality we face. There is such a stigma that exists in the military regarding issues of mental health and suicide that maybe awarding an important medal for an intervention is actually what we need right now to start chipping away at a toxic culture that treats suicide as simple weakness.
For the fourth argument, I guess you can never really know if an early intervention really saved someone’s life. But geez – this is splitting hairs! Accept some freaking risk!
And yes, I understand that maybe another medal may be more appropriate. AAM? Please. An ARCOM? Eh. If you want to have impact, the Soldier’s Medal is the way to go.
Soldiers will do incredible things to earn a piece of cloth or a badge. If the Army really wants to change the culture surrounding suicide, incentivizing intervention might be one way to do it.