You might think that the stupidest phrase in the English language is “friendly fire”, because friendly fire means a soldier got shot and killed by one of his or her own fellow soldiers. What could possibly be less friendly than that?
And you might think that death by friendly fire is the worst possible way to waste the life of a soldier. But it isn’t.
And American military personnel are committing suicide at a rate unprecedented in the history of the United States and maybe in all of everyone’s history. In June alone, thirty-two active duty service members killed themselves. Thirty-two. Killed themselves. In uniform.
And those are just the personnel who killed themselves while on active duty in June. Others took their own lives as veterans after returning to reserve duty and civilian life.
How big is this problem? Well, even one suicide is a tragedy for the individual and the family involved. But on a national scale, it has become scandalous. Consider this: about 7% of our citizens are military veterans, yet the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 20% of the suicides in America are by veterans taking their own lives. With a suicide rate nearly triple the non-veteran population, clearly something is very, very wrong.
No small part of the problem is the all-too-predictable shuffling of personnel among myriad categories of active duty, active reserve, inactive reserve, veteran, etc. It’s easy for an individual to get lost in the system and all too many cracks for them to fall through. And, of course, there are too few professional support services available to them even when they know where they stand in the system. Adrift, they become easy prey to their own worst demons—demons those of us who have never experienced war can not begin to imagine. Demons we ourselves hired these service personnel to experience and suffer.
Fortunately, this sickening phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. Congressman Rush Holt (NJ-12) has tackled this problem forcefully, persistently, and creatively ever since he became aware of the scope of the problem following the suicide of a constituent in the military. He introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for increased support and responsiveness from the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration. The “yes” vote, even in these bitterly partisan times, was unanimous. The matter now moves to the Senate where Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced a corollary bill to put the Holt plan into action.
In keeping with the widespread dispersion of personnel during and after military service, Holt’s bill shrewdly appropriates $20,000,000 for creative outreach through advertising and so-called “social media” on the internet to increase and maintain contact with veterans.
And then, he introduced language the House passed that would require periodic outreach to reservists in order to monitor their well-being and to offer treatment to any considered at risk to themselves or others.
Representative Holt followed this up with a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Defense and the head of the Veterans Administration, he insisted that they cut through bureaucratic red tape in their departments to ensure that all who serve and have served in the military get immediate access to professional support services that include suicide prevention. Many reservists discharged back to their home units after active duty were falling into limbo where insufficient care was available.
Holt has also challenged the findings of a new report on the suicide problem that was issued by the Army which suggested that the victims were themselves somehow to blame. According to the Army’s official report, “Soldiers who ultimately take their lives have typically been engaging in high risk behavior long before their tragic end.” That is an appallingly obtuse response for an organization that utterly depends for its success on recruiting people willing to engage in high risk behavior like fighting wars and dying on battlefields.
If the military needs and wants people who are willing to live closer to the edge of their lives than others of us, they damn well better be prepared to offer every conceivable sort of support for them during and after their service. Even one more suicide is one too many. And thirty-two in a month is just nauseating.
We can do our own small part right now by contacting our Senators and insisting that they support Senator Lautenberg’s bill, the “Sgt. Coleman Bean National Guard and Reserves Mental Health Act”, when it appears on their docket.