By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 24, 2009 – Each case is as unique as the name inscribed on the dog tags. Soldiers are taking their own lives in record numbers, and Army senior leaders are struggling to understand why.
"It rips your heart out," the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, told a group of soldiers last month while on a week-long tour of Army installations to look for clues.
Last year, 143 soldiers killed themselves -- a record in the past three decades since the Army has been tallying the numbers. For 2009, the service again is headed toward a record year.
January’s spike of nearly two dozen confirmed or suspected suicides prompted leaders to form a senior-level task force to try to uncover the causes and reform the systems to help suffering soldiers.
“It really drove home that the Army needed to do something now,” Army Brig. Gen. Colleen L. McGuire, director of the suicide prevention task force, said in an interview here yesterday.
It’s easy to point a finger at soldiers’ multiple deployments, little time at home and the stress of serving in two wars as the causes. But hundreds of thousands of soldiers have deployed, and only a fraction have chosen to end their lives.
McGuire and other members of the task force accompanied Chiarelli as he visited several major Army installations to talk with leaders and troops hoping to find a common thread.
Their finding: it’s complicated.
McGuire said that during the trip it became apparent that the problem is not simply suicide-related, but that many soldiers are engaging in unhealthy and risky behavior, such as binging on alcohol and mixing it with readily available prescription drugs.
In combat, soldiers are encouraged to take risks, and are rewarded for it. But at home, they are taking the wrong kinds of risks, she said.
“What we’re finding … is that there is a great deal of alcohol and [prescription] drugs available to soldiers,” she said. The drugs are prescribed for their combat-related injuries. But many are using them to kill the pain of returning from war to face the realities of the home front.
In combat -- a disciplined environment -- soldiers know their limits and leaders know their soldiers. But for many in today’s military, the less-restricted garrison life is a foreign environment, McGuire said.
“How do we address the needs of today’s soldier? It’s not the same soldier from the ’90s,” she said.
And it’s not the same leader, either.
Many of today’s young leaders were brought up in the heavy deployment cycle of two wars. They have spent most of their time either in the field training for deployment, deployed, or at home on leave following a deployment.
They no longer are accustomed to the processes, paperwork and inspections that made up the preceding two decades of garrison-oriented leadership and soldiering. McGuire said she thinks some may have lost those garrison leadership skills, such as health and welfare inspections, that took care of troops in that environment.
During their installation visits, McGuire said, the task force found that many of the administrative and discipline processes in place in garrison are not being used, due either to ignorance or choice.
For example, if a unit is readying for deployment, some commanders are not sending their soldiers through military drug programs after testing positive for illegal drug use to maintain troop-strength levels. Leaders are required to refer every soldier who has tested positive for illegal drugs, or who has had an alcohol-related incident, to the Army substance abuse program. That’s not happening every time, McGuire said.
“Soldiers who either have a [driving under the influence charge], engaged in domestic violence where alcohol was involved, or they tested positive in a [urinalysis] are not being referred,” she said.
And disciplinary forms that are supposed to make their way to the senior installation commanders reporting soldiers’ infractions are being turned in less than a third of the time on some installations.
McGuire said the problem is partly administrative and partly that many commanders are overwhelmed.
“It’s just another paperwork drill. It’s just more that we’re putting on commanders,” the general said. But also, she said, some leaders are cutting soldiers breaks, thinking they are doing them a favor, but hurting them in the end.
The task force also is honing in on how isolation factors into its suicides.
The past 30 years have seen a shift away from communal barracks, where as many as 30 single soldiers shared an open bay. Typically, the leader lived in a room at the end of the bay. Married soldiers lived on post in Army-provided housing.
Now, many single soldiers are in single or double dormitory-style rooms. Most married soldiers live off post. Some are isolated by duty assignment, such as recruiters stationed far from military installations. Other soldiers are assigned solitary late-night shifts. And some in unique job specialties may feel isolated even within a unit.
This is compounded by the fact that within a few months of returning home, most leaders and soldiers are transferred to other units. Soldiers who have problems often find themselves without their battle buddies and the leaders who watched over them in combat. Their new leaders, who don’t know them as well, are pushing to prepare for the next deployment.
Many of the diagnostic programs in place now are seen simply as a block that must be checked in the pre-deployment process, precious time to be carved out of a hectic deployment schedule, McGuire said.
And then there’s the institutional stigma of seeking mental health care. Soldiers think they should deal with their problems. Leaders should be strong, and they feel asking for help is a sign of weakness, McGuire said. And there still is the fear that security clearances can be revoked.
McGuire stopped short of saying the task force was looking to overhaul the system. And its members really do not want to simply create another program, she said. In fact, commanders often are overwhelmed by the number of programs the Army already has.
“We have existing programs that are designed to ensure the good order and discipline of the organization,” McGuire said. “Let’s just enforce what we currently have before we create more and new.”
Another possible soldier suicide, this time in Iraq, was added to the numbers last week. It too, is under investigation.
Chiarelli now is immediately briefed on any suspected suicides. He committed to personally reviewing each suicide case this year. In March, he received his first briefing.
"It was the most intense two and a half hours I have ever spent, even from being in a combat zone,” Chiarelli told a group of soldiers during a stop at Fort Bragg, N.C. “It was an experience I will never forget."
The task force is temporary, and will spend less than a year looking for gaps in the system. No quick fixes are expected. While senior leadership hopes to better put its finger on the pulse of the force, the sad fact is that those serving in the Pentagon are not on the front lines of stopping soldiers from taking their own lives.
That falls to the soldiers’ families and friends, McGuire said.
“If we see a friend, a family member or a buddy that seems to be hurting -- needs some help -- we need to take action,” she said.
And it’s their leaders.
“It takes getting to know your soldiers. It takes getting to know how they live, understand their stressors, who their friends are. It’s basic leadership,” McGuire said.