The Army’s Clandestine Report on Suicide

The Army’s Clandestine Report on Suicide

July 30, 2010 – The Army just released a report yesterday, entitled “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention,” which contains the results of a 15-month study on the Army’s growing problem of suicide.

Okay, the report is 350 pages long so I will admit that I have only skimmed it at this point.  I’ve been researching the issue of military suicide for quite some time so it was easy to use the table of contents to quickly find the specific information for which I was looking.

One one hand, I’m flabbergasted that a group of people could spend 15 months researching a subject and come up with such lame excuses for not really being able to point to the cause of the high suicide rate.  On the other hand, I don’t know why I would have expected anything else.

If you want the short story version of report results, here it is.  The Army has filled 350 pages with possible reasons for suicide, but does not ever come to any real conclusion as to why so many are taking their lives. The Army says that the horrors of war are not actually the cause for suicide.  It’s really not the Army’s fault either.  It has absolutely nothing to do with the stigma associated with asking for help.  It isn’t even because of the medications.  It’s simply that 1,713 people attempted suicide and 239 people successfully committed suicide and the report suggests that these 1,952 people had other reasons for taking their lives or attempting to do so, and thus the blame game begins again.

The Army is now admitting that since 2004, they have granted 80,403 waivers to people who should not have been allowed to enlist.  Over 47,000 of those granted a waiver are listed as having committed a misdemeanor or a felony or struggled with drug or alcohol abuse.  The other 33,000 probably just have some sort of physical defect.  Maybe they were overweight or perhaps they have webbed feet.  The main point here is that the Army wants us to think that those committing suicide would have probably done it anyway, even without having served. They offer up other possible reasons for suicide, but if you read the report, they just keep coming back to the waivers over and over. Seems to me that if this is where the Army wants to point the finger of blame, they are ultimately pointing back to themselves.  They should have sent the guy with webbed feet home when he entered the door of the recruiting center if he wasn’t good enough for them.

So to what kind of people would the Army issue a waiver?  What type of crimes were acceptable enough to be overlooked?  Do these crimes involve individuals who have robbed banks or are they just acts committed by immature teenagers pulling pranks? I am imagining all those high school boys who were almost disqualified from service because they were caught toilet-papering their neighbors yard would be just the type who would take their lives.  After all, they’ve been headed for trouble since they threw that first roll of Charmin over the top of the elm tree in the Smith’s backyard.

There are also those who commit acts of misconduct once in military service.  You know the type.  They deploy two or three times.  They come home, most certainly unaffected by the atrocities they have seen 24/7 for that past 365 days.  Once home, they do something simply unimaginable such as drink too much or drive too fast.  Some have even been known to oversleep and miss formation!  According to the Army, here’s no cause for this behavior other than the fact that these guys may have come from that same group of toilet-papering delinquents with webbed feet mentioned earlier.  (Don’t forget who issued the waiver in the first place.)

The Army has admitted that the commanders are overlooking misconduct because they need the able bodies to build their war machine, thus there is an increase in tolerance of high risk behavior.  I’m wondering in what form this “tolerance” defines itself.  Does tolerance mean to simply ignore the behavior?  Does tolerance mean that there is increased discipline, without administrative separation? Are they “controlling” the behavior with NJP’s (Non-Judicial Punishment), loss of rank (aka loss of dignity), verbal assault and public humiliation?  This “tolerance” might not be viewed as mentally healthy to those who are the beneficiaries.

What about all of those pot smoking soldiers?  Thousands of them were mentioned in the report. These soldiers are simply viewed as party animals, malingerers looking for a good time.  There is no possibility that they are self-medicating for PTSD.  After all, according to the report, the war didn’t affect them.  They’ll tell you that there is simply no truth to the medical benefits of cannabis even though research supports otherwise.  We’ve all been brainwashed to think that marijuana is a bad word.  We associate the word with dark alleys, overdosed junkies, and mob activity and not one of us can even argue as to why we feel this way.  The Army would want us to believe that the pot smoking soldiers came from that original entry pool admitted with the waivers…who were driving fast cars and throwing rolls of Charmin across the neighbors yard late at night.

Stigma, it has been admitted in the report, still exists in the military, but that is not the cause of suicide.  Military officials claim stigma is significantly reduced. Only 51% feel that stigma is still a dominant factor in whether or not a soldier will ask for help.   What number defines 51% of the entire Army population?  According to Wikipedia, within active and reserve duty, there are approximately 2,932,400 members of the Army.  So only 1,495,524 soldiers believe that stigma exists and are afraid to go ask for help. Things are definitely looking up, and besides, according to General George Casey, “The stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment is not just an Army problem … this is a societal problem that we all have to wrestle with…..”

Yes, General, society does attach stigma to seeking mental health care, but I haven’t heard about too many doctors lining their patients up in formation and screaming at all of them telling them that they are going to be thrown under the bus if they don’t quit complaining about their aches and pains.  This is no exaggeration.  I’ve heard this happen at a unit for wounded warriors.  At least when a civilian wants to go to the doctor, it can be done in complete privacy and there will likely not be anyone on the medical staff yelling and threatening the patient.

Prescription medications are mentioned in the report as being problematic, but I get the impression that the Army wants us to believe it is still the fault of the soldier that swallows the pills.  BG Richard Thomas, Assistant Surgeon General for Force Projection, said “We’re seeing ….. a lot of Soldiers that are taking narcotics, a lot of Soldiers are taking anti-depressants, psychotropic class medications.”  General, might I ask who is prescribing these medications?  Are the soldiers evaluated thoroughly before these pills are given out like candy?  What about the issue of polypharmacy?  Most of these soldiers are on so many medications that they simply can’t function.  Soldiers experience adverse side affects  that affect decision making, judgment, and actually cause suicidal ideations.  There are many soldiers dying in their sleep, all because they were following orders and taking their prescription medications.  Some soldiers are actually punished for NOT taking their medication.

Polypharmacy almost killed my son.  He was just taking his medicine as his military doctor had prescribed.  If we had not intervened, he would have died.  I imagine he would have been counted as a suicide.  Of course, he was not given a waiver so this might disturb statistical data.  He entered the service simply by being qualified.

One final explanation for the cause of suicide in the Army is all of risk factors that are common to all of us. Failed relationships, death of a loved one, loss of property or finances, loss of job, legal issues, investigations or pending incarcerations, access to weapons, risk-taking behavior, are mentioned, just to name a few.  Yes, those risk factors are common to those of us out here in the civilian world, but they are far more common in the military community.  Why?  Because these factors are not causes.  They are the effects of a natural emotional reaction to the deeply shocking and disturbing experience of war and repeated deployments.  A normal reaction to an abnormal situation will ultimately result in a life spinning out of control if there is no understanding and no help to be found.

I have to wonder.  Did anyone really talk to the soldiers who are dealing with PTSD? Checking research sources, I noted that soldier satisfaction surveys were used. If you are interested in the effectiveness of these surveys please take some time to read “Are We Entitled to Our Own Opinion?”

Sadly, the Army really doesn’t have a plan of action except to ask leaders to read the 350 page report.  I’d like to know how many leaders have already stopped everything else they were doing to read this report carefully.   If Army officials really wanted to know what was wrong they would have an outside source do the investigating and find the real answers.  They would start with the source, that being the soldiers who suffer and their families who have first hand knowledge of what is truly going on.  If the Army can’t do any better than this after 15 months of study, I shudder to think of the number of deaths that will be reported this time next year.

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