As Military Leaders Search for Psychological Kevlar, Soldiers Keep Taking Their Own Lives

Military Suicides: Those We Might Yet Save

by Penny Coleman

Justice Policy Institute, Jan. 24, 2012

Soldiers say goodbye to fallen buddies during memorial services at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Afghanistan's Konar province. The Army has begun efforts to train its soldiers into being "resilient" to the psychological trauma of war. (U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell)

When my husband Daniel came home from Vietnam in 1969, he was a mortally wounded man. Some essential part of him had been damaged, but the damage was invisible from the outside. On the inside, something malignant had implanted, something that would fester and ultimately prove to be as lethal as any bullet or bomb.

Soldiers throughout the ages have suffered traumatic injuries in response to the horrors of war. When their most basic beliefs about right and wrong, conscience, compassion and humanity are shattered, they can be transformed in malignant ways. For some, the urge to destructive behavior will be directed outward, devastating their families and support networks, their careers, their place in the world. When their lives spiral out of control, many of them will end up behind bars. For others, the urge will be towards self-destruction. They will risk and abuse their bodies, and far too many will die by their own hands.

Daniel was a beautiful, gentle, funny, vulnerable man, but he was also hurt in ways that neither of us understood. One minute he would be throwing sticks for the dogs and the next he would be throwing coffee cups at me. The next, he would take to his bed with the blinds drawn insisting he didn’t want to live. His rages were frightening.

His nightmares were terrible. He drank too much, smoked marijuana all the time, carried a zip lock baggie with different colored pills for different occasions, dropped out of school, lost three jobs in as many years, and held me much too close. When I tried to pull away, he tried to kill himself. Twice. When I finally left, he did.

For decades, I believed that his death was my fault. If only I had been kinder, more patient, listened better, noticed more, intervened faster. But in the early 70s, there was no such thing as PTSD—at least officially. Daniel was dead and I had failed to keep my man alive. The rumors that more Vietnam veterans had taken their own lives since coming home than had died in the war were yet to be heard, much less confirmed.

So it was with heartbreak that I witnessed only a generation later, history repeating itself. Months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an upsurge in soldier suicides prompted the Army to send the first Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) to investigate. Since then, the MHAT experts reported back every year that soldiers were killing themselves for the same reason soldiers “typically” kill themselves: “insufficient or underdeveloped life coping skills.”

… Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), promises to build such warriors through a program that teaches resiliency, teaches soldiers to respond to stressful situations with positive emotions, like optimism and cheer, and to sublimate “negative” emotions, like anger, fear and grief. “Post-traumatic growth” has become the new standard to fail by. – Penny Coleman

More specifically, they had failed to manage their financial, legal, substance abuse, and especially their relationship problems. I know that accusing finger all too well and I resent the implication that Daniel died because somehow we failed.

At his funeral, his brother gave the shortest of eulogies: “It was the war.” Then he sat down.

Read the rest of this story:

Watch video of Peggy Coleman’s testimony to Congress on PTSD and suicide prevention:

Part 1

Part 2


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