WASHINGTON — A silent killer is rapidly infiltrating the military, claiming lives at an alarming rate each year.
It does not discriminate, taking aim at the young and old, male and female — from the battle-hardened soldier to the new recruit.
Military suicides have more than doubled in the Army, exceeding the national average over the past five years, and leaders are redoubling efforts to figure out why.
“It’s an area that can’t get enough focus right now,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “When we’re losing as many lives as we are, it is a crisis we have to continue to address.”
In an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service, Mullen and his wife, Deborah, talked about what it will take to stop troops and families from taking their own lives.
“It’s a very difficult, vexing, complex problem and one that leadership has to spend an awful lot of time on to try to figure out,” Mullen said. “It’s one that in the country is not well understood; therefore, [it’s] one in the military that isn’t understood.”
While top leaders are struggling to find answers, military suicides have reached a critical point, the chairman said. Last year, suicide claimed 309 troops, and in 2008, 267 servicemembers committed suicide, according to a Defense Department task force. From 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 servicemembers took their own lives, an average of one suicide every 36 hours, the task force said.
Some reports attribute the spike to multiple deployments and long family separations. The majority of suicides do take place among servicemembers who have deployed, Mullen said. Still, a considerable number occur among those who haven’t deployed, he added.
Complicating the issue is a delay in symptoms for those who have served in combat, Mullen said. In many cases, post-traumatic stress symptoms don’t reveal themselves until months or years later, and a servicemember may be discharged by that time and back in a civilian community without the same level of support. The military needs to find ways to track those servicemembers so they receive the support they need, he said.
“A significant amount of work needs to be done on the prevention aspect of [suicide] so we don’t get to the point where men and women would consider doing this,” he said.
Leaders also must gain an understanding of the problem’s scope, including the signs, symptoms and vulnerable population, he said.
“More than anything else, I think, military leaders have to lead,” Mullen said. Many leaders have had challenges themselves, he noted, and the way they address those challenges, seeking help when needed, can set the example for others.
The military also must work to end the stigma that’s preventing people from seeking help early on, Mullen said, including family members afraid to raise a red flag.
Spouses often are the first to notice a problem, but are fearful of the career repercussions for their servicemember if they speak up, Mrs. Mullen said.
“We know that servicemembers tell their spouses not to mention any sort of symptoms the servicemember might be experiencing for fear that, as one spouse said, ‘That will mean the end of their career,’ ” she said. “That stigma is so ingrained and embedded in not just the military, but in our country, and breaking through that is going to be key … to solving this problem.”
This internal barrier to seeking help can have a far-ranging effect, also causing spouses to stop short of seeking much-needed help for themselves, Mrs. Mullen said. Spouses, she said, may be suffering from stress, anxiety, frustration and anger, but are afraid of the fallout from asking for care.
When family members have the courage to ask for help, the military must step up care, Mrs. Mullen said. She said she spoke with a military spouse with suicidal thoughts who sought help from a military physician. She was given medication, but not a follow up. If someone is brave enough to come forward, the military must offer ongoing support, including mental-health follow-ups, she said.
Mrs. Mullen called for training within families to help them recognize issues in their servicemember and in themselves, and to know what to do about them without fear of repercussion.
Fortunately, families have more avenues of help now than ever before, including ones that offer anonymity, she said. People who are uncomfortable speaking with someone at a military clinic can instead receive 12 free counseling appointments through Military OneSource or contact Tricare for online counseling at home. Other resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800-273-TALK (8255), the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors at 1–800-959-TAPS (8277) or a military family life consultant.
Support is particularly vital after a suicide, when a family is at its most vulnerable, Mrs. Mullen said, stressing the importance of what she calls “post-vention,” or after care.
“It’s important to make sure that the people at risk after the suicide are reached and that they have the opportunity to express privately maybe their own concerns, their own thoughts,” she said. “I think if we provide for them the appropriate post-vention care that we will restore the hope for those families that this may not occur in their family again.”
The Mullens both stressed the importance of hope, both in prevention efforts and in the aftermath of a tragedy. A suicide, they said, means all hope was lost.
“[There’s] help out there that would allow an individual to move through this,” the chairman said. “Keep the hope, as difficult as that may seem in these circumstances.”
“No matter how hard, how long, no matter what it takes, however many people need to get involved in this, this is something that the military is going to pursue and try to eliminate totally.” Mrs Mullen added.
To watch this interview with Adm. and Mrs. Mullen, tune in to the Pentagon Channel’s “This Week in the Pentagon” today and Sept. 17. The interview will run as part of the channel’s special, “Restoring Hope: Stories of Survival.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)