NASHVILLE, TN -- The number of people in the U.S. military who have committed suicide has increased dramatically in recent years, with the Army alone battling a suicide rate that doubled between 2005 and 2009.
At Fort Hood in Texas, officials have documented 14 confirmed suicides and six suspected suicides among soldiers so far this year, including four suspected suicides during one weekend at the end of September. Fort Hood had 11 suicides last year and 14 total in 2008.
Sara Horn, a military wife who founded a support network called Wives of Faith, said the suicides are directly related to a problem of the heart.
"When the heart has no hope, it's very hard to see a future. This should serve only as one more wakeup call, one more plea to our local churches and believers to reach out to our military and their families," Horn told Baptist Press. "We know the hope we have in Jesus. We have to share that hope with others."
More than 1,000 troops have killed themselves during the past five years, driving the Army suicide rate above the civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better as more soldiers return from war.
"Things that have been pent up, or packed in, or basically suppressed or sucked up -- whatever term you want to use -- we're going to start to see that as well," Mullen said, according to Time magazine Sept. 30.
An independent report ordered by Congress found the Pentagon's suicide prevention efforts inadequate, with fewer soldiers dying in combat than by their own actions, including suicides and accidental deaths brought on by high-risk behavior.
The report, released in July, said the "hidden wounds of war" -- the psychological and emotional injuries -- have placed unprecedented demands on the Armed Forces and military families. While the military has increased efforts to curb suicides, the response has lacked the coordination necessary for sustained success, the task force found.
Jerry Jewell, a pastor near Fort Hood, suggested that the increase in suicides is a result of a generation of soldiers raised in a society without the truth of the Scriptures.
"They don't know Jesus, yet they're trained to go and kill," Jewell, pastor of Living Hope: The Church in the Field in Copperas Cove, Texas, said. "In the military we train people to kill without giving them any true moral standards to go by.
"In past generations our soldiers were given Bibles. Many of them were grounded in the Christian faith. Nowadays, most of these young soldiers don't have any idea about God, and Jesus Christ is a curse word to many of them," Jewell told Baptist Press.
When they come home traumatized by what they've seen on the battlefield or what they find is left of their marriages, many soldiers don't know how to cope, and they think, "If I can just kill myself, this will be done," Jewell said.
"Secular humanism says you die and that's all you are. Think about what we as a nation have taught them in schools," Jewell said. "We've taught them that you come from animals -- you evolved from apes -- and when you die there's nothing else. If you have the choice of continuing to live in the circumstances you can't stand and don't know how to fix or dying and ceasing to exist, many of them choose to cease to exist. Unfortunately that's a lie."
Randy Wallace, pastor of First Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, said that while the military has a responsibility to help at-risk soldiers, many times prevention hinges on whether a soldier asks for help.
"My personal perspective is that we've asked too much of these people. We've run them through multiple deployments, and things wear out and they break, including people," Wallace told BP.
While First Baptist Killeen ministers to those soldiers and their families who come to the church seeking assistance, Wallace said he finds it difficult to reach others who aren't asking for help because of the restricted access to the Army post. Also, for those who have already committed suicide, their families may not be within reach.
"The people that are grieving are probably not in Killeen. It's probably a hometown somewhere," Wallace said. "So the geography of the death does not necessarily relate to the geography of the grief."
David Mullis, a chaplaincy coordinator for the North American Mission Board, said pastors need to be prepared to answer questions such as, "How could God love me when I have done this or seen this?" and "Where is God when ...?" He emphasized the need to watch for warning signs.
"If a parishioner sits down and says, 'I'm having sleepless nights' or they talk about recurring dreams of the trauma that they saw in war, they begin to talk about 'I can't stop drinking' or 'Things are going bad at home. I can't relate to my wife or my children,' 'I come home from work and I go straight to bed,' these are all indicators that there's probably a combat operational stress situation happening," Mullis said. "When these are not paid attention to, what does a person do when they're hopeless? They may say, 'Well, I'll end it all.'"
Mullis suggests pastors consult a resource page at namb.net/chaplain to learn about a biblical response to post-traumatic stress disorder. A crucial way to prevent suicides, he said, is for people to pay attention to their neighbors and to welcome people into church with open arms.
"We need to have churches that have their antennae up," Mullis said. "... One spouse just told me recently, 'My husband is not the same person now as he was when he went away to war.' Just that little hint should cause us to say, 'What does that mean? Are they having dreams at night, are they sleepless, are they having night sweats? Do you find them withdrawn? Is there any alcohol abuse that's unusual or wasn't there before?'"
The Department of Veterans Affairs or a local health care provider then should be able to handle a referral, Mullis said.
"When I talk with our chaplains and I ask them, 'What has carried you through the experience of war?' consistently they say, 'It's my faith,' secondly, 'My theology that God is a loving God,' third, 'My family,' and fourth, 'My church family,'" Mullis said.
"You see their personal faith and then that family of God that surrounds and supports them. You can imagine how difficult it is for a person who doesn't know Christ as Savior and is outside the church to try and put all of this together."
Horn, of Wives of Faith, agreed with Mullen's prediction that as more troops come home, more problems will occur.
"The high tempo of deployment our military and their families have faced has created a cycle of stress and other issues in marriages and the home that couples and families have had no time or opportunity to deal with while their service members have been continually leaving for war," she said, adding that when the troops return home, "churches need to be there to help" address any problems that evolved during deployment.
Churches should not assume that there are no military families in their area if they don't live near a military installation, Horn said. National Guard and Army Reserve families live in most communities, and they have the least access to resources for military families even as they are being deployed as consistently as active duty soldiers.
"Do a survey in your community, hold a dinner and invite every military family who wants to come to come. Let them know you're there to support them, not just in word, but in action," Horn said. "Don't do this just at scheduled patriotic holidays, though. Freedom doesn't happen just on July 4.
"Teach your congregation that this is an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus and not only is it a good thing to do, it's imperative that it's done. Because when someone is in the military and meets Christ, you've just opened the door for that person to share Christ with who knows how many others he or she serves with."
Churches in military communities need to resist the temptation to assume another church is already ministering to families, Horn said, and each church needs to invest in the lives of military families, even if those families will only be in the community for a short time.
"Think of the seeds you will plant and the harvest that will happen regardless," she said. "Plus, word travels fast in the military community and if one family is impacted by your love and service, they will tell others who will look for you when they move into your area."
Jimmie Auten, director of missions for the Greater Fort Hood Baptist Association, said one of the most important ways to help reduce the military suicide rate is something any Southern Baptist anywhere can do: pray.
"Pray for them. They experience some horrendous things when they are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they come home a different person, some of them much for the worse," Auten, a retired military veteran, said.
"It's a whole new normal. Life is not like what it was before they left. It is extremely stressful, one of the most stressful wars on our military that I think we've ever experienced, at least in my lifetime. Just pray for them."