Monday, October 8, 2012

Response to Military Suicide Article

The Pentagon's "Quick" Fix is NO FIX to Military Suicide

By:  Rev. Dr. Chrys L. Parker, J.D., PTSD specialist

It's an unfortunate irony that the Defense Department apparently believes that its proposed ban on servicepersons' privately owned guns will serve as a "silver bullet" that will prevent or reduce suicide among service members. 

Such a proposal, while no doubt well intended, is reflective of the Pentagon's misguided and ineffective search for quick and simplistic answers to complex problems of the human psyche, which are the inevitable product of war.  While the military is undoubtedly skilled in marshalling men and regulating the use of arms on the battlefield, the ongoing battle within the mind of the traumatized and suicidal soldier is of a very different kind.   The skills needed for the first kind of battle are ineffectual in fighting the second. 

The military was designed to fight wars, and does so with competence.   But as an institution, the military was never designed to be the curer of wounded souls.  When confronted with the alarming psychological byproduct of war,  the military seeks to employ "default" solutions which, in its estimation, will fix a problem through the issuance of orders.

 Soldiers do not become suicidal simply because they possess weapons.  And they will not avoid suicide, based on an order not to possess them.  After all, suicide may just as easily be accomplished with a service weapon, and frequently is.  If possession of private weapons is (erroneously) deemed to be the factor which initiates suicide, then we must be led to the ludicrous conclusion that a ban on all weapons, including service weapons, would be in order if we are to really get serious about reducing the rate of military suicide.

 Obviously, the Pentagon is not logically thinking this problem through to its thoroughly illogical conclusion.  In a desperate move to find a quick "fix" that can be implemented by legislation and M.P.'s, instead of through appropriate, empathic and personally rendered care, the military is firing without aiming first.  It seeks to control the means of suicide, without bothering to examine the reasons that warriors adopt those means in the first place. 

And, to be sure,  there are plenty of means that remain available to the suicidal serviceperson, whether private firearms are banned or not.   It is patently obvious that the nameless "senior Defense Department officials," who have concocted the suggested ban on private weapons,   spend little or no time whatsoever actually talking, working, or counseling with REAL suicidal warriors, like the ones I see and counsel every day.  

In coming to illogical conclusions about what drives suicide, or by what means it is accomplished, the Pentagon appears not to learn from its own reports. For proof of that, one may look back at the DoD Epidemiological  Report on Suicide for  the year 2009, which references the number of suicides accomplished by hanging. 

Would the Pentagon therefore propose that we inspect the house of every warrior for rope and seize the household clothesline, as an "effective" plan for suicide reduction?   Having begun with private weapons, and moved on to rope,  should we also plan on banning razors, kitchen knives,  motorcycles,  and automobiles,  which are also prominent instrumentalities of suicide? 

The additional suggestion that prescription drugs be removed from households by spouses of "at risk" soldiers is irrational and ineffective.  It presumes, first, that "at risk" soldiers can be systematically identified.  Suicidal soldiers will be the first to tell you that if they are truly serious about taking their lives, they will deliberately evade identification.

Assuming, however, that a soldier is identified as genuinely "at risk" of suicide, that soldier ought to be in treatment, NOT left sitting in his bathroom contemplating the contents of the medicine cabinet.  Having failed to make adequate treatment accessible, the military is shifting the burden of care to spouses, who are not the proper persons upon whose shoulders the psychiatric management of soldiers should be foisted. 

I am sure that the good intentions of Dr. Jonathan Woodson,  Assistant  Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, are not to be doubted… only his ability to grasp the obvious.  The "obvious" is that (l) removal of prescription drugs may also serve to defeat the administration of bona fide medical treatment;  (2) removal  of the drugs of one person would  extend to removal of  ALL drugs for  ALL family members ;  and  (3)  a suicidal soldier may obtain lethal drugs from many sources outside the home ,  including the $3.00 bottle of acetaminophen (Tylenol) from the local drug store. 

The illogic of these proposals, not to mention their unconstitutionality, is astonishing.

"Orders" are things the military knows well.  Orders lend, to the military, both the internal feeling and the public perception that  things are "under control."   Orders are calming, because they make it appear that a problem has been put to rest.  But "orders" are also utterly ineffective to salve the deep wounds which cause many warriors to lose all sense of meaning and all desire to live.  The only thing which this proposed order will put to rest, are the lifeless bodies of soldiers who have ended their lives, in countless other ways,  despite the military's "orders" that they not commit suicide by firearm.

 As a mental  health provider,  as a Chaplain in service to military members and veterans, and as a contract military trainer,  it pains me to see the military utilize its time, resources, and talented personnel in continually avoiding the nature of the suicide problem, instead of addressing its underlying realities.

Suicide is not a weapons problem, or a drug problem, any more than it is a rope or razor problem.  It is an existential problem… a deep wound to soul and psyche of incalculable depth, which creates an absolute belief in the mind of the warrior that his or her existence is absolutely of no value or worth.  This is what drives suicide.

What is actually of no value or worth in preventing suicide is the use of weapons bans, prescription bans, or digitized slide shows which attempt to "lecture" despairing soldiers into  living against their will, rather than by providing them the relational care they need.

For some, suicide is the only means of escaping the unremitting terrors of gruesome and horrifying battles that are continually re-enacted in flashbacks which medication cannot remedy.  For others, suicide feels like the only "adequate penance" for intense guilt over having survived when one's buddies did not.  For others it is a reflection of the inability to "occupy" a body or soul that has become soiled by the brutalities of war, or the deaths of others caused by the performance of one's duty. 

Every warrior who suicides has his or her reason.   But whatever the reason, all suicides constitute a "final solution" for  people whose deep personal pain is fed not  by guns, but by mental, social and spiritual isolation, exclusion,  and the knowledge that the relational support  which they experience in the combat theater is no longer present for them when they return to the rear. 

It was my privilege to go to the Iraqi theater in 2010.  Now I understand why warriors are at lesser risk of suicide in theater than they are at home.  There is not a single suicidal warrior whom I counsel who would not willingly return to the war overseas, where men and women are kept alive by the close relational bonds connecting those who live, work and fight together and have a shared sense of life's meaning.  Society, however, often defines meaning in wholly different terms, into which some returning servicepersons no longer fit in the light of what they have experienced.   As a result they quickly feel unfit to be a part of the society they risk so much to defend. 

 Sadly, where some servicepersons they believe they DO "fit" is in deep, black emotional chasms into which warriors fall soon after they return to a life that is full of material comforts, but bereft of meaning.

 No private weapons ban will instill the will to live in warriors whose lives have been stripped of meaning.  Stripping them of weapons will only encourage them to look for other available exits from life. 

 Better that our military and our entire society focus our attention less on the false comforts of quick fixes, and more on providing empathic care, rendered shoulder to shoulder and face to face.  The hope that defuses suicidality is not found in a military "no weapons" order, but in the eyes of  other human beings who truly care.

Rev. Dr. Chrys L. Parker is co-author, along with Harry Croft, M.D., of the book I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall. She is a clinical chaplain, pastoral counselor and trauma therapist who has provided care for over 2,500 traumatized persons.  Harry Croft M.D. is a former Army doctor and psychiatrist who has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans with PTSD.  Visit