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Pentagon Denies Increase in Troops' Suicides a Result of War

The military says that there's no connection between the stress of combat and spiraling suicide rates. But the widow of a vet who took his own life knows differently.
 
 
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As the widow of a Vietnam vet who killed himself after coming home, I find every new report about suicides among this generation of soldiers particularly painful. So I was surprised the other day to find myself laughing out loud reading about how poor Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army Surgeon General's office, got stuck with the awful job of announcing, with a perfectly straight face and no irony whatsoever, that, although the suicide rate among soldiers has reached a 26-year record high, Pentagon studies still haven't found a connection between soldier suicides and the war.

They looked. What's a Pentagon to do?

And I think it was rather too kind of the media not to call attention to the fact that, as this year's designated goat, poor Elspeth had to stand up on her hind legs and try to sound sincere while once again parroting the official line that these poor dead kids are to blame for their own deaths. Year after year, they let their "personal relationships" get all messed up; they let their "legal and financial problems" get out of control; and they let "work stress" get them down. (Hmm…work stress…?)

The United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003 and by August, so many American soldiers had killed themselves that a mental health advisory team was sent to investigate. Their report, MHAT I (yes, more coming), confirmed a suicide rate three times greater than the statistical norm for the armed forces. It also acknowledged that a third of the psychiatric casualties being evacuated "departed theater with suicide-related behaviors as part of their clinical presentation." Red flag? Nope. The team's conclusion was that soldiers were killing themselves for the same reasons that soldiers "typically" kill themselves: marital, legal, financial problems, what they referred to as "underdeveloped life coping skills." There was a supplement to the report that was intended to assess the general health and well-being of soldiers. The supplement listed things that soldiers most often identified as combat "stressors," and, well, those were about what you might expect. They mentioned "seeing dead bodies or human remains, being attacked or ambushed, and knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed." Somehow none of these "stressors" made it into the team's final opinion as to why these kids were killing themselves.

So now every year they send another team of experts to Iraq, and every year they file another report (MHAT I, II, III, IV and counting), and every year some poor spokesgoat has to stand up and tell a bunch of grownups that it's these kids and their personal problems, not the war, that motivates these young people with their whole lives ahead of them to end it.

Well, every year except for 2004, when the rate dropped a lot, and everyone started crowing about how all the new suicide prevention measures were working, and they looked real good until the numbers for 2005 came in, and someone noticed that in 2004 they had used a different definition of a suicide. Tricky. That year they only counted the deaths involving guns.

Last year's goat was a Col. Joseph Curtin, who assured the gathered journalists, "We're not alarmed." He went on to say that the Army was not aware of any single reason for the rise, but he dismissed the notion that the increase was somehow tied to combat exposure. Instead, he blamed (are you ready?) financial difficulties, failed relationships.

And the journalists wrote that down.

This year it was poor Elspeth, and she did the best she could with what she had: "What we have found is not a direct relationship so far between deployment, combat and suicide. The primary reasons for suicides, when we examine the completed suicide, is failed intimate relationships, failed marriages."

Last year, when asked if anything was being done to stop this less than alarming trend, the Army's Surgeon General, Dr. (Lt. Gen.) Kevin Kiley let his annoyance show: "(W)e've had young soldiers who will get bad relationship news and walk right into a Porta-Potty and end their lives, and no one has an opportunity to intervene." Damn!

This year, Ritchie was every bit as sensitive: "Unfortunately, suicide is very often a compulsive act. Very often a young soldier gets a 'Dear John' or 'Dear Jane' e-mail and then takes his weapon and shoots himself…It just takes a second to pull it out and put it to your head and pull the trigger." Double damn!

But Ritchie did manage to inject a new note of optimism: "That's part of the reason why such Army programs as 'Strong Bonds' are intended to reinforce and strengthen marriages and other intimate relationships." Strong Bonds offers soldiers a weekend retreat with an army chaplain. "As a couple, you'll practice communication and relationship-building skills, as well as share intimate moments." Quick fix. Impressive. I'm wondering whether Strong Bonds trumps stop-loss.

So now the Army says they're initiating an extensive new program to teach soldiers how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and others, but it's an uphill battle. "For PTSD and acute stress disorder," Ritchie acknowledges, "we think, and we're pretty sure about this, that soldiers are worried about being perceived as weak and don't want to have people in their unit find out." Pesky career-minded soldiers.

Ritchie's "pretty sure" soldiers are worried about stigma? Maybe she didn't hear about U.S. District Court Judge James Ware's ruling in favor of Robert Zabala's suit for conscientious objector status, which noted that when a fellow recruit committed suicide on the shooting range, Zabala's commanding officer, a Capt. Sanchez, made his feeling very clear: "F*** him, f*** his parents for raising him, and f*** the girl who dumped him."

Finally, a bit of clarity. I've been struggling with questions of guilt ever since Daniel died. I always knew it was my fault.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam Veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War , was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.

 
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