Dempsey: Military Must Persevere to Solve Suicide Issue

SINGAPORE, June 1, 2012 — The chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yes­ter­day said he dis­agrees “in the strongest pos­si­ble terms” with an Army major general’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of sui­cide as a self­ish act.

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“I’ve been in con­tact with Army senior lead­er­ship and know they share my con­cern,” Army Gen. Mar­tin E. Dempsey said, regard­ing recent con­tro­ver­sy over Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard’s blog com­ments, since retract­ed.

Dempsey spoke with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice while fly­ing here for the Shangri-La Dia­logue, an annu­al Asia secu­ri­ty sum­mit that begins today.

Pit­tard, com­man­der of the 1st Armored Divi­sion and Fort Bliss, Texas, wrote the blog post in Jan­u­ary after attend­ing the memo­r­i­al ser­vice of one of his sol­diers, who took his own life. Pit­tard wrote that he is “per­son­al­ly fed up with sol­diers who are choos­ing to take their own lives so that oth­ers can clean up their mess.”

Dempsey said the com­ments were “both unfor­tu­nate and extreme­ly inap­pro­pri­ate.”

In retract­ing the remarks last week, Pit­tard expressed his “deep­est sin­cer­i­ty and respect towards those whom I have offend­ed,” not­ing sui­cide is a very com­plex issue that plagues not just the mil­i­tary, but soci­ety over­all.

There have been 140 sui­cides across the ser­vices thus far in 2012, accord­ing to defense offi­cials. This com­pares with 122 at this time last year, and 110 at this point in 2010. Among ser­vice mem­bers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, more have died by sui­cide than by ene­my action.

The Army is the largest mil­i­tary branch and sees the most sui­cides, but the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as well as the Army have poured time, mon­ey, effort and train­ing into pro­grams and ser­vices aimed at stem­ming the trag­ic flood. Vet­er­an sui­cides are also alarm­ing­ly high, at 18 per day as report­ed by the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs.

“We’ve been hard at [com­bat­ing sui­cide] for at least the last sev­en years,” the chair­man said. “We have not spared any effort, but nor have we turned the trend line.”

Dempsey said he has spo­ken often and at length about the need for pro­fes­sion­al mil­i­tary mem­bers, from the newest recruit to the most senior offi­cer, “to be very intro­spec­tive at this point in our his­to­ry about what a pro­longed con­flict, the longest war in our his­to­ry, with an all-vol­un­teer force, has done to us and to our fam­i­lies.”

“The issue of sui­cide, and all of the oth­er trag­ic men­tal health issues that we have expe­ri­enced over the last 10 years of war, require us to con­tin­ue to seek to learn,” he added.

Senior lead­ers in par­tic­u­lar are “account­able for help­ing the entire pro­fes­sion, the entire force, under­stand the issues,” the chair­man said, adding that Pittard’s com­ments “did­n’t help, but hurt, our efforts to under­stand. They added anoth­er lay­er of con­fu­sion.”

Lead­ers must help men and women who are expe­ri­enc­ing “incred­i­ble stress­es in their lives” get help, he added.

Dempsey said his approach is to ensure mil­i­tary lead­ers don’t address issues such as sui­cide in iso­la­tion.

“We’ve got … the issue of increas­ing sui­cides; we’ve got sta­tis­tics that demon­strate sex­u­al assault remains [an issue]; we’ve got an increase in report­ed instances of haz­ing,” he said. “Not all are relat­ed to war, but all are relat­ed to who we believe we are, and … what knowl­edge, skills and attrib­ut­es we seek in the young men and women who serve — and the not-so-young men and women who serve.”

The chair­man said his goal is to see those issues in con­text with each oth­er, and to ensure recruit­ing, poli­cies, edu­ca­tion and train­ing across the forces are man­aged to address the issues as effec­tive­ly as pos­si­ble.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve learned a lot about what attrib­ut­es we may need for the future,” Dempsey said. “Are we, in our recruit­ing base, seek­ing them? In our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, are we devel­op­ing them? In our eval­u­a­tion reports, are we reward­ing them?”

The mil­i­tary is a won­der­ful pro­fes­sion of which he could­n’t be more proud, Dempsey said, yet there are now a num­ber of “weak sig­nals” that, tak­en togeth­er, empha­size the need for con­tin­ued learn­ing and change.

“Ulti­mate­ly, we are respon­sive to the peo­ple of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca and to the Con­sti­tu­tion,” he said. “You’re not a pro­fes­sion just because you say you are, you’re a pro­fes­sion because you earn that title every day. This is anoth­er one of those instances where I think we’ve got to take a good hard look at our­selves.”

The chair­man not­ed he often speaks of main­tain­ing the bond of trust with­in the mil­i­tary.

Part of that bond rests in lead­ers pay­ing atten­tion to the men­tal health of ser­vice mem­bers, build­ing in their troops a sense of resilience and the self-con­fi­dence that comes with “hard train­ing, know­ing you’re men­tored, know­ing you’re cared for, know­ing there’s some­one out there that cares about you and you’re part of a team,” he said.

Mul­ti­ple pres­sures come to bear in the lives of ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, Dempsey said.

“We’ve got to keep at this,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)