Last Saturday, a vice admiral died in Bahrain of an apparent suicide. Officials were quoted as saying “no foul play” was involved.
In March of this year, a reserve Marine Corps battalion commander and DEA agent took his own life in Los Angeles.
In July 2016, an Army two-star on the eve of his promotion to three-star and assumption of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command was found dead in his home. It took the Army over a year to finally acknowledge that sleep deprivation and self-doubt led this up-and-coming flag officer to take his own life by hanging himself.
In 2008, an Air Force one-star Wing Commander who previously served as the executive officer to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force shot and killed himself.
And way back in 1996, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jeremy Boorda took his own life over a few erroneous ribbons he wore on his uniform and the embarrassment of having misrepresented himself to his community.
Those are just a few of the high-ranking officers in our military who fell prey to the epidemic of suicide that since 9/11 has taken more lives than our current wars. Between veterans who’ve already departed service and those still serving, one takes their own life roughly every 65 minutes.
Every time there’s a high profile suicide or an uptick in occurrences, the services try their best to show their efforts to get their arms around this silent killer in our force. Million dollar programs are launched to identify and prevent risk factors for suicide but the number of incidents remains high — higher than civilian rates, for certain.
Yet even general officers at the top of the food chain aren’t immune. Our armed forces are the best-trained fighting force on the planet yet the statistic we lead our civilian counterparts in by almost 10 percent is suicide.
Why has donning a uniform absent of combat become such hazardous duty? How can we dismantle extreme jihad networks that have terrorized the world yet lose more people to suicide in that same period?
Note that this is not just a man’s issue. Military women have a five times greater incidence of suicide than women who have never served, a grim indicator of equal opportunity. For fatalities.
Please hear me out. I don’t wish to throw stones at the well-intended response of the services. By all accounts, they are grappling and as best they believe, are attempting to bring this epidemic under control. But this isn’t just a millennial issue of a supposed short-sighted “entitled” group of young people. Our senior leaders share the same disease. And while identifying trends and risk factors can be helpful, how we resource and employ that intel will have everything to do with the effect on outcomes.
I would like to propose a different approach, one requiring transparency and vulnerability by our leaders in order to really get to the epicenter of what’s literally killing our force.
In short, it is this: We need to stop thinking we’re bulletproof and begin using our behavioral health services like a readiness tool. By flipping the script, getting help early and often to build resilience at the first sign of a fissure, we could address small issues before they gain traction in a service members life.
"Why has donning a uniform absent of combat become such hazardous duty? How can we dismantle extreme jihad networks that have terrorized the world yet lose more people to suicide in that same period?"
If we are serious about neutralizing this foe, we need to accept and act on two critical implications to changing the narrative in this realm: 1) get serious about the resources required and 2) stop sending the message that getting help indicates a failing or weakness.
The individuals who follow through on suicide are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of service members officially undiagnosed with depression because the warrior culture chastises this admission. That stigma is the breeding ground for self-demise and suicide. To this we need to commit adequate, if not extraordinary, resources (basically, more behavioral help clinicians) at every level to ensure that service members can get the help they need without making access to care a blinding gauntlet they must navigate to get such help. With enough of these resources perhaps we can tip the scales getting in front of the issue, maybe even use as a performance enhancement to improve readiness through building resilience.
If and when, we can get to a place where we measure and train resilience just like we do marksmanship or physical training, It’s my assertion we will see the upward suicide trend downturn. When leaders get behind initiatives that truly address the inadequacies in our readiness we’ve seen the strides that can be made. The right amount of command emphasis on equipment maintenance can dramatically improve operational readiness rates. Why can’t this same application of leadership have a similar effect on our most important resource - the human version?
Suicide is a complex and wicked hard problem. But it’s not an impossible one to solve if the world’s premier fighting force decides this is an enemy we are going to take no prisoners from and beat it into submission. There is no more valuable asset to our nation’s defense than the men and women who voluntarily take up the mantle to “fight and win our nation’s wars.” It’s time to take this fight to the enemy that’s stealing our talented warriors away in their prime and not let up until victory is in our hands.
Angie Holbrook is a recently retired 27-year Army officer and combat veteran who commanded at both the battalion and brigade level. She deployed twice to Iraq, from November 2006 to February 2008, and from July 2009 to July 2010. She now works in the defense industry as a national security practice solution provider for human capital initiatives.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.