May has been a bad month for the United States Army, with the number of suicides by the soldiers reaching a crescendo. Out of the 17 suicides, one is confirmed and the others are suspected suicide cases and under investigation.
Army statistics reveal an upward trend for the second year in a row and the figures show an increase from the month of April. The total number of suicides since January of this year is at 82. In 2008, 133 army suicides have been recorded, which is the highest ever.
The Army does not call it a “confirmed suicide” unless it has been proved and labels it as “potential suicide” until the investigation over a death is complete and reported.
Of all the Army divisions, the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell recorded the highest number of suicides. Several units from this division have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and thousands of troops are currently in Afghanistan. Soldiers, as expected, have been under a lot of pressure and stress associated with these deployments. In spite of training the troops to identify signs of distress and getting help, the suicide rates continue to rise.
The 101st division has sent out a plea to the soldiers asking them not to commit suicide. “If you don’t remember anything else I say in the next five or 10 minutes, remember this – suicidal behavior in the 101st on Fort Campbell is bad. It’s bad for soldiers, it’s bad for families, bad for your units, bad for this division and our army and our country and it’s got to stop now,” told Brig. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend. He said, “Suicide is a permanent solution to what is only a temporary problem. Screaming Eagles don’t quit. No matter how bad your problem seems today, trust me, it’s not the end of the world. It will be better tomorrow. Don’t take away your tomorrow.” He also urged soldiers to “tell somebody” if they are feeling suicidal.
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army Vice Chief of Staff reveals his understanding of the gravity of the situation by saying, “We have got to do better. It’s clear we have not found full solutions to this yet. But we are trying every remedy and seeking help from outside agencies that are experts in suicide prevention. There isn’t a reasonable suicide prevention tool out there the Army won’t potentially employ.”
The U.S. Army identifies the cause of these suicides as the long hours of work the soldiers have to put in without getting to spend any time with family between deployments. With no recreation and support of the family and loved ones, the stress levels continue to rise and reach a peak at some point, where the soldiers feel they can no longer handle it. These soldiers need help and more than help, the focus has to be on family time.
According to a professor of community health at Portland State University in Oregon, the plea by the 101st division, not to commit suicides, may not work, as it sounds almost like an order. There is a stigma to mental illness in the military and soldiers who acknowledge their problems and admit to having suicidal feelings can end up not being considered for promotions, not given access to firearms or losing other opportunities. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that they are not going to come out with their feelings.
The professor said that if the Army really wants to address this problem, it needs to dig out the roots of the problem – the stressors that cause suicidal tendencies in otherwise normal soldiers. Soldiers have to face several issues, such as frequent deployments without any family time in between, long deployments, deployments to hostile places, marital problems, financial problems, injuries and stress of war. He said many of these soldiers shoot themselves when under the influence of alcohol and this primary concern should be addressed.
There are some bases that have set good examples and stand out with very less suicide rates compared to the others.
According to Base commander Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, he has made it a point to ensure every soldier leaves work by 6 p.m., in time for dinner, if they are working day shift. Thursdays, they leave by 3 p.m. and they don’t work weekends, unless Lynch requires them to. He says this system seems to be working. Although, his base has also seen a couple of suicides this year, the number is far below most other major Army bases.
Fort Hood in Texas is singled out, as the general focused more on relieving stress of the 30,000 soldiers and not just the suicide issue. There has been just one suicide here, which is commendable. The general said that tackling the overall stress levels has proved to be more effective than trying to stop the suicides, since soldiers face stress not only in war but also in other aspects of their lives.
Experts are of the opinion that screening techniques to identify people at risk for suicide are available and will prove to be extremely helpful. The United States Army is working toward increasing the number of counselors to help more soldiers and to ensure everyone gets screened by a qualified and professional mental health counselor.
It is a sad that the soldier fighting for the country ends up feeling that he has nothing to live for. He deserves to live more than anyone else. It becomes the duty of the U.S. Army to safeguard the interests of the soldiers and do whatever it takes to keep them happy.