How to Reduce Military Suicides

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Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I have been quite vocal in my opposition to most of what is done by the U.S. military in the name of defending our freedoms and other nonsense. Because of this I have been accused over the years of not appreciating and not supporting the troops (I plead guilty) and indifference to and wishing harm to the troops (I plead not guilty).

However, on this latter point it needs to be said that it is only natural to expect that foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. military invasions, occupations, bombings, and killings would retaliate against U.S. troops. Just think of what Americans would do if these things were done to them.

So, on the one hand, as Herbert Spencer wrote over a hundred years ago in his essay on patriotism: “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.” But on the other hand, as an American, I don’t want to see any American soldiers harmed, and especially those that were duped into fighting some unnecessary and senseless foreign war.

The solution to the dilemma is to not send American soldiers overseas to fight foreign wars, which are inherently unjust. This keeps foreigners from having to shoot invading American soldiers and American soldiers from having to shoot resisting foreigners.

The difference between a warmongering Republican or conservative (like every major conservative talk show host and every major Republican presidential candidate except Ron Paul) and yours truly is that I don’t want anyone on either side to die.

One way that American soldiers are increasingly dying is at their own hands. More U.S. military personnel have died because they committed suicide than from suicide bombers detonating explosive devices near U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to see military suicides reduced.

According to a new policy brief titled “Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide,” published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), from 2005-2010, “service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours.” The Army had a record number of thirty-three suicides in July of 2010. That is eight times more soldiers dead by suicide than were killed in Iraq that month. That is over half the number of soldiers killed in the much-more-dangerous occupation of Afghanistan that month. The report also says that the Veterans Administration estimates “that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes.” Although only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides.

According to the report:

  • The mental health screening process following deployment is flawed.
  • Suicide among service members and veterans threatens the health of the all-volunteer force.
  • America is losing its battle against suicide by veterans and service members. And, as more troops return from deployment, the risk will only grow.
  • Soldiers who deploy are more likely to die by suicide. Data have long indicated definitive links between suicide and injuries suffered during deployment.
  • Additional factors that heighten risk include chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, substance abuse and difficulties with anger management. These factors are also widely associated with deployment experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The report also noted that military hazing caused some of the suicides and that excess prescription medication in the military community was also a problem.

At an event launching the CNAS report, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Peter Chiarelli said that trying to reduce the number of suicides in the Army has been “the most difficult challenge” in his forty years in the military. One of the authors of the report, Dr. Margaret Harrell said that the battle against suicide was being lost “multiple times a day.”

According to the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) for calendar year 2010, 295 service members died by suicide in 2010 (Air Force – 59, Army – 160, Marine Corps – 37, Navy – 39). There were 863 known suicide attempts. The suicide rate for divorced service members was 55 percent higher than the suicide rate for married service members. Most of those who successfully committed suicide were white, male, and under 25 years old. The number of suicides in 2009 was 309; the number in 2008 was 268.

According to the Final Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, in the nine-year period from 2001 to 2009, more than 1,900 members of the military took their own lives. This is more soldiers than have died fighting in Afghanistan since the war on terror was launched.

Although I am not a physician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a mental health or suicide prevention counselor, I can think of four things that would reduce military suicides. And not only that, these things would also save the taxpayers money, improve America’s image in the world, keep us safer, and make it honorable to serve in the military.

One, stop fighting foreign wars.

When soldiers are sent to fight unnecessary, unjust foreign wars (is there any other kind?), there will always be questions in their minds about why they are fighting in a place they couldn’t locate without a map and against a people that never harmed an American until Americans first stuck their noses in their business. And we wonder why soldiers get depressed and suicidal?

The aforementioned CNAS report found a direct connection between deployment and suicide. Some soldiers don’t even wait until they get home to suffer chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and unemployment – they kill themselves in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The fewer foreign wars our soldiers are told to fight (the ones who have to do the actual fighting are never asked for their opinion), the fewer cases of traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs, depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, and chronic pain our soldiers will needlessly have to suffer with.

I just can’t see U.S. soldiers getting depressed and suicidal or suffering PTSD and sleep loss over having to kill enemy soldiers who actually tried to attack the United States.

Two, end the empire.

Why does the United States still have tens of thousands of troops in Germany, Japan, and South Korea? Why does the United States have any troops at all in Djibouti, Australia, and Argentina? Why does the United States have 250,000 troops in foreign countries? Why does the United States have troops in 160 countries and territories? Why is it now so commonly accepted that someone in the military is being deployed to Germany or Japan?

Military life is destructive to children, families – and service members. The strain of separation or relationship breakups, or the guilt over temptations succumbed to, can certainly lead to suicide.

Sailors on Navy ships in Jacksonville should sail down around the Florida Keys and up through the Gulf of Mexico to Texas and then turn around and go back and see their families. No landing in Mexico, the Caribbean, or South America – for any reason. That will do more to keep America safe than sailing in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Tonkin. And it will certainly do more for morale and military families than overseas deployments.

Three, end most roles for women in the military.

“Your mother wears army boots” used to be a derogatory remark. Now it is true for 207,308 women in the U.S. military. This is about 15 percent of the 1,425,115 total members of the military. (All figures are as of September 30, 2011.) And these numbers don’t include the Coast Guard. Women comprise an even higher percentage in the Guard and Reserve.

Over 200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been 111 female U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. There have been 30 female U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the most recent one being Sarina Butcher, aged 19, who died on November 1, 2011. It is a terrible tragedy that we send young men to die in senseless foreign wars; it is a horrendous evil that we send young women.

Call me a sexist, a chauvinist, and a misogynist all you want, but no woman has any business flying a helicopter in Iraq, like twenty-seven-year old Army captain Kimberly Hampton, who died when the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter she was piloting was shot down. (No man does either, but that is not my point here.)

According to Allan Carlson, the U.S. Department of Defense is the nation’s largest child-care system. Up to 40 percent of military pregnancies occur among unmarried military personnel. The 10 percent of military personnel who are “service couples,” with both husband and wife in uniform, are 64 percent more likely to be divorced by age 24 than comparable civilian couples. Carlson made the case many years ago for the “Bachelor Army” in Policy Review (the Fall 1993 issue in which it appeared is apparently not online).

Things will only get worse since the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress two years ago, recommended that the Pentagon do away with the policy that bans women from serving in combat units.

According to the previously mentioned DoDSER, one fourth of attempted suicides in the military are by women. Relationship issues are a factor in both male and female military suicides.

Four, stop perverting the purpose of the military. As I have said in one form or another on many occasions:

The U.S. military should be limited to defending the United States, securing U.S. borders, guarding U.S. shores, patrolling U.S. coasts, and enforcing no-fly zones over U.S. skies instead of defending, securing, guarding, patrolling, and enforcing in other countries. The U.S. military should be engaged exclusively in defending the United States, not defending other countries, and certainly not attacking, invading, or occupying them. Using the military for any other purpose than the actual defense of the United States perverts the purpose of the military.

Soldiers should know without a doubt that what they are doing is moral, just, and right. Limiting the military to actually protecting the United States is the surest way to do this.

This means no more offensive wars. No more nation building. No more spreading democracy at the barrel of a gun. No more policing the world. No more providing disaster relief. No more dispensing humanitarian aid. No more preemptive strikes. No more bombing. No more extraordinary renditions. No more enhanced interrogation techniques. No more peacekeeping operations. No more enforcing UN resolutions. No more regime changes. No more assassinations. No more overseas deployments. No more foreign military bases. No more containing communism. No more opening markets. No more enforcing no-fly zones. No more training foreign police and armies. No more invasions. No more occupations. No more foreign wars.

I support the troops. I support the troops not being put into positions where they face unnecessary danger. I support the troops not fighting senseless foreign wars. I support the troops not being separated from their families. I support the troops not being sent to kill foreigners. I support the troops not being stationed on overseas bases. I support the troops not being misused by presidents, politicians, and military brass. I support the troops not being killed as invaders and occupiers. And I support the troops not killing themselves.

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