The official Sebastian Junger community
MG (ret) Frank J. Schober Jr. has not received any gifts yet
Following is a draft paper I wrote on the troop suicide problem. If nothing else, I think suggests a different solution that I don't think has been tried.
If you get a chance to take a look at it, I would most appreciate any comments you may have that would make it more effective---including junking it.
I quote you, I hope accurately, on page 4. What you say about soldiers and what motivates them is central to what I try to say in the paper.
Good to hear that you memorialized Tim at Sundance. I saw it in the paper this morning.
The statistics are in the news and will gain our attention for a while. Suicides by members of our Armed Forces have surged from over 300 in 2011 to 349 in 2012. This sad number is in excess of combat deaths in Afghanistan where our war fighters are still engaged. Self-inflicted deaths last year for the U.S. Army were over 180, with approximately 60 in the Navy and Air Force and 50 in the Marine Corps. The National Guard and the Reserves, some of whose members are on active duty and others who train at their home base armories and reserve centers, share in the gruesome statistics. Military leaders at the highest level are baffled by the trend. General Odierno, the Army’s Chief of Staff asked recently; “Why has it spiked this year? Is it because we’re coming down off the number of deployments? Does it have to do with soldiers who had existing problems, problems that weren’t taken care of? We don’t know,” he said. “It’s something that we keep trying to figure out, but we don’t know the answer yet.”
In the Army’s ongoing battle against suicide, other troubling trends have emerged:
• The Army, which accounts for the largest number of suicides are is on track to reach its highest suicide rate ever — 29 suicides per 100,000 soldiers per year, more than three times the rate in 2004 and a more than a 25 percent increase from last year.
• More noncommissioned officers and soldiers with multiple deployments are committing suicide.
There is another statistic that is equally troubling, the number of suicides by Veterans. Some 2.3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since the attack on our Country on 9/11/2001 and 800,000 of that number were sent on repeated tours to those combat zones. Their suicide rates are high. According to the Veterans Administration, 18 veterans kill themselves each day.
Never in our history have we required what we require of those who serve in the Armed Forces of present today. Many of our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen have served multiple combat ours overseas and even with the present drawdown in Afghanistan, some experts predict that service member suicides will increase in 2013.
The response by the Armed Forces to a problem that gets negative publicity is usually the same. Blizzard it with new regulations. Publish new procedures to combat it, brief and train on it and require commanders at all levels to appoint officers with an additional duty of providing higher headquarters with statistics that show that the organization is working hard to solve the problem.
The Regular Armed Forces and the Veterans Administration are making costly efforts at the moment to reduce the numbers of suicides among those they are responsible for. Service members are briefed on suicide prevention topics before, during and after overseas deployments, on arrival at a new duty station and when discharged. They fill out questionnaires that enable staff psychologists to spot a soldier’s individual problems that may impel him or her to commit suicide. There are awareness programs in every unit, 24-hour hot lines and suicide prevention posters on bulletin boards, stairwells and everywhere else service members congregate. Considering the costs in time and money, a quotation by Albert Einstein comes to mind; “Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The expenditures of time, money and effort continue in the same direction, continue to do the same things and the problem is not being solved.
What successful leaders, military and civilian, learn from experience is that complex problems oftentimes have simple, basic solutions… that all-to-often are not favored by the “experts”. It could be that we are working to solve the suicide problem from the wrong end of the spectrum, focusing on its pernicious results but not on its root causes.
Before we can hope to get an answer to the question; “Why are suicides occurring with such frequency in our Armed Forces and among our Veterans?” we should attempt to answer some other questions we may have not asked ourselves.
All who study the problem are aware that young men are the most numerous cohort in the suicide statistics. Young male service members and young male veterans are the ones doing away with themselves. A seldom-heard word, etiology, the study of basic, root causes, needs to surface in our effort to determine the reasons for their self-destructive actions. Two questions answered poorly if at all by the present programs to stop and reverse the suicide trend we are faced with as a Nation are:
The answers may be found in anciently rooted, limbic brain-based human desires to be accepted useful “members of a pack”. There is a great deal of evidence that a need to belong, basically the need for friendship that sustains survival, is not well met or met at all in the anomie of present-day digital society. Statisticians do not like assertions that cannot be numerically quantified, but it may very well be that recruits “join up” to gain a purpose in life and value their service experiences because of the friends they make. A song still popular many years after it made the top of the charts, “Everybody needs somebody to lean on” exemplifies this latter most human of needs.
Obituaries like the following from the year 2005 answer the above questions in a more telling way. They have been repeated again and again since 9/11 in hometown newspapers throughout our Country. They will continue as long as our Country continues to fight in the Global War Against Terror.
“A soldier from ______ who enlisted in the Army National Guard to give his life meaning and direction was killed this week by an explosion in Afghanistan, his mother said.
She said her son enlisted in March of 2011.
“He felt like his life was going nowhere,” she said… “He wanted his life to have a purpose, to have some meaning.”
Sgt. _____ is the latest member of the U.S armed forces from the area to be killed in Afghanistan. Members from his unit will be his pallbearers.
Interestingly, while Internet social networks may make us feel that we know hundreds of people, research is showing that we feel more isolated than ever before. A 2006 study published in American Sociological Review found that people in the U.S. had fewer friends than they'd had 20 years prior. In 1985, the average American claimed to have three close friends, but by 2004, the average American had only two close confidants. One in four people reported having no close friends at all. Facebook, Twitter etc. have widened but not deepened our friendships.
No worthwhile military organization have ever existed in which there was not a solemn vow by every member of its basic units…the section, squad or platoon, that no one of their number would ever be left alone, wounded, dead or dying on the battlefield.
What emotional investments do service members have in the units they are assigned to in a combat zone? What happens to their feeling of purpose and worth when they are returned to what they may consider to be a boring stateside assignment, to a Guard or Reserve unit they only train with a weekend a month or when they are discharged into the general population?
What are the factors most at work that deep develop deep, abiding, life-time relationships among members of the same organization in the military?
If one conducts a survey, either casual or scientific, the answer is likely to be
“Things are boring back here.”
Why does a young man volunteer for the military? Whatever he says in a written or oral survey, it is most likely to escape the isolation and anomie of civilian life.
What does he experience that is different in the military? He has friends he can depend on. He no longer feels isolated.
What does he miss when he returns? It is quite clearly the caring structure, the cohesiveness, and a shared sense of purpose. The English language, with its astoundingly rich vocabulary, is remarkably deficient in having only one word love, to describe a complex emotion for which Greek uses three or four. One of the chapters in the book WAR by Sebastian Junger, the definitive work on the present-day US Armed Forces, is entitled “Love”, meaning brotherly love, what the Greeks would call “philia”. Junger was embedded for the better part of a year with an Army platoon in the most fought-over terrain in Afghanistan at the time, the Kornegal Valley on the border with Pakistan.
What he says describes soldier’s feelings exactly in ways they would seldom repeat to a civilian without the same experience.
Only one man in the platoon I was with chose to leave the army after the deployment--Brendan O'Byrne, …someone I consider a good friend. A few weeks ago we were hanging out with a family I know, and the talk turned to how rough the fighting was in Afghanistan. The mother, a woman in her thirties, asked Brendan if there was anything he missed about the experience. Brendan looked at her and said, without any irony, "Yes, almost all of it." I think what Brendan meant was that he missed an existence where every detail mattered--whether you tied your shoelaces, whether you cleaned your rifle--and you never had to question the allegiance of your friends. As Brendan said at another point, "There are guys in the platoon who straight-up hate each other-- but they'd all die for each other." Once they've been exposed to that, it's very hard for these guys to go back to a seemingly meaningless and ill-defined civilian life…
Junger continues; “Getting the men to talk about fear was very hard because, well, I think they were afraid of it. Their biggest worry seemed to be failing the other men of the platoon in some way, and whenever someone got killed, a common reaction was to search their own actions for blame. They didn't want to believe that a good man could get killed for no reason; someone had to be at fault. During combat, the greater anxiety that they would fail to do their job effectively subsumed their personal fear and someone else would get killed. The shame of that would last a lifetime, and they would literally do suicidal things to help platoon mates who were in danger. The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade--certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else--is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don't think it can be explained by "army training" or any kind of suicidal impulse. I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way. Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting. That may be one reason combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.
If the answers being given, the programs being expensively implemented are not working; what should we be doing to solve the tragic problem of suicide?
It has been said that we Americans are not a philosophical people; that we search first for practical and not the theoretical answers to any problem with which we are faced. But having tried all else and spent so much in the way of resources on the problem of service-related suicide, the philosophical issues surrounding the problem may be worth looking at.
Nancy Sherman a professor at Georgetown University who served as Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the United States Naval Academy, writes perceptively concerning the conflict between the virtues of friendship and those of stoicism in her book Stoic Warriors. She first quotes Aristotle who argues that “No one would chose to have all good things on condition of living alone” and that a friend is “of one mind with us when we are in need of emotional solidarity and support.” She records a feeling expressed by soldiers on every battlefield of every war quoting the poet Siegfried Sasoon, who wrote that he could hear his battalion whispering to him as he lay wounded in his hospital bed; “When are you going out to them again? Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”
Stoicism, best expressed by the homely phrase “Suck it up” is the countervailing but essential value held by every soldier of every military unit that has ever existed. It is, so to speak, the other side of the military coin. A unit leader at any level of any rank in any war faced with leading his troops in harm’s way would never excuse any of his war-fighters from participating in an operation if he claimed to have an emotional problem. It would not and could not happen. The
Men make friends in Service that last a lifetime. If the friendships they made in a unit gave meaning and purpose to their lives and individuals that commit suicide have lost meaning and purpose in their lives; the solution to the problem is to find a way to cement those friendships in later military or civilian life.
There is not a troop leader at any level who does not recognize that the bonds that men form in both life-endangering situations and elsewhere in the military is unique, that it is long-lasting, that it is essential for both mental and physical survival. Every person in every unit of the Armed Services in a theater of operations in in a vulnerability zone. There are no more front lines and no safe area to the rear. Our troops now group themselves as being “in or outside the wire.” But being simply inside the wire does not mean that being a headquarters soldier is not at risk too.
The Stoic philosophy of “suck it up.”
An answer to the questions that arise from the conflict inherent in all military service between the need to belong and to have dependable, trusted friends vs. the requirement to be brave, act-strong and avoid complaining about oneself exemplified by the more common injunction to “Suck it up” provide untried keys that will do most to solve the suicide problem of our Armed Forces today.
What can be done with present resources to solve the problem of suicides in our Armed Services and in our growing community of Veterans? Some suggested answers follow:
PROGRAMS THAT LINK CANINE COMPANIONS, “MAN’S BEST FRIEND” WITH VETERANS SUFFERING FROM PTSD OR TBI
All over the Country, individuals and organizations like New Mexico based, “Paws and Stripes” are helping Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Brain Injury adjust peacefully and well to life that was a problem for them when they returned to civilian life.
Paws and Stripes has a long waiting list for its program that links specially trained instructors with Veterans. The trainer and the Vet go together to the local animal shelter, chose a dog in the “bonding shed” and the Vet and his new canine companion train together for two sessions a week for six months.
The Veterans served by “Paws and Stripes” and programs like it in the Country, have symptoms that their dog companions help them overcome or neutralize. They are treated as working dogs and not as family pets. They alert the Vet to danger, sense and remind him to take his medications, help him get around and through “dangers” that other humans do not perceive and are trained to let him know when he is becoming “uptight” and should get out of an area he is in.
It is a special pleasure to observe Veterans after they have graduated from the Paws and Stripes program and others like in the Country. It is not for every Veteran but it makes a huge difference for the relatively few that have taken ownership of and trained with an Assistance Dog. Some Veterans have, as is well-known, return to civilian life trusting no one. An assistance dog is the grand exception. There are no statistics that back up the assertion, but it is nevertheless a common sense conclusion that a Veteran with an Assistance Dog is not likely to commit suicide. Who would take care of the one friend he has if he did?
But today, with Assistance Dogs by their sides, Veterans are finding it easier to cope. When veterans own a qualified service dog and both dog and the Veteran have trained together with a specially certified trainer, there are immediate benefits. The Veteran develops a sense of security and safety. They are no longer alone. They've got a dependable buddy again.
The Veterans Administration, Veterans organizations, private foundations and businesses should be encouraged to embrace canine assistance programs for TBI and PTSD Veterans like Paws and Stripes throughout the Country. These programs have proven themselves to be cost-effective and deserve our Nation’s full support.
I wrote an article that mentioned your contributions to our Country in the September-October edition of the Purple Heart magazine. I wrote on page 26 of that magazine that you are the author of the two most definitive works thus far written or produced on the global war on terror and the American fighting men who return again and again year after year to fight on its zones of peril... Restrepo and WAR. Its not much but I have purchased these works by the dozen and…Continue
Posted on October 19, 2011 at 2:34am — 1 Comment