DoD Must Correct Army Leadership Failures in Suicide Prevention Arena

Matt and Cheryl Ecker hold a photo of their son, Army veteran Michael Ecker, who shot himself in the head in the family’s Ohio backyard. (Reuters)

The U.S. Army Can’t Stop Soldiers From Killing Themselves

by Chris Miller and Patrick Bellon
The Atlantic, Oct. 12, 2012

BLOGBACK: Military leaders understand regulations. This includes suicide prevention regulations. Until DoD leaders issue clear enforceable regulations to be followed in suicide prevention — and hold leaders accountable when they violate such regulations — policy, suicides will likely continue on a record-setting upward trend. According to DoD’s latest figures, at least 353 service members have died by suicide so far in 2012. This data does not include figures from the Navy and Marine Corps for members of their Reserve components; nor does it include members from all branches who serve in what is known as Individual Ready Reserve status. The number of actual suicides certainly is not being completely disclosed by DoD. Only when DoD changes course and takes the bold step of holding leaders accountable (prosecuting, withholding promotions and assignments) for failing to adhere to existing suicide prevention policies, will the suicide problem begin to recede. No commanding officer has ever been punished in any case involving military suicide. This must change. Commanders routinely disregard suicide prevention policies and requirements without consequence.

The military takes enormous precautions to protect the troops. But it hasn’t been able to take on the leading cause of their death: suicide.

Any former soldier will tell you that the U.S. Army sometimes goes to rather ridiculous extremes to keep the troops safe.

In Kuwait, soldiers are required to wear yellow reflective belts at all times and junior soldiers are not allowed to go anywhere alone. In Iraq, some units require wearing ballistic protective eyewear at all times, even on camp on the way to the latrine.

SPC Michael Ecker, Army veteran, 25, shot himself in the head in front of his father in Champion, Ohio, in April 2009 just after VA rejected a claim for benefits accusing the Iraq War veteran of “over-reporting” his PTSD symptoms.

In Germany, the Army forbade soldiers to ride motorcycles because three soldiers died in accidents there. Every Friday, soldiers receive “safety briefs,” and on long weekends they must have their personal vehicles checked for safety hazards by their leadership.

But while the Army takes great care not to lose soldiers to injury or accidental death, it has been unable to protect the troops against what is currently the leading cause of their death: suicide.

The Army needs to make a cultural change to combat this problem.

This summer, the Army reported that active-duty suicides had reached a record high: 26 in the month of July alone. Last year at exactly the same time, I wrote that July 2011 recorded the most Army-wide suicides ever with 32 (22 of whom were active duty).

In June 2010, 31 soldiers committed suicide (21 of them active duty). These numbers are the equivalent of an entire platoon.

In most months, more soldiers are lost to suicide than are killed in combat. Additionally, an average of 18 veterans per day commits suicide. That is 540 per month; a battalion of veterans lost to suicide each month.

Leaders have to build a relationship with their soldiers like big brothers or father figures, not just bosses.

Compare the attention given when only 10 soldiers die in a single combat action. Imagine the attention and national sorrow if the Army lost an entire battalion, something that hasn’t happened since Vietnam. In reality, it is happening every month.

The big question is what should be done to combat this epidemic.
The Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs recognize its severity, and recognition is the first step toward addressing it. The next step must be a change in the Army culture.

This is not a problem that can be solved with a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation in the post chapel, accompanied by a brochure with a hotline number.

Tackling this problem will require leaders at all levels to get out from behind their rank and military instruction manuals and talk about something that is hard for tough guys to talk about: how to support each other emotionally. Any leader who cannot or won’t do this shouldn’t be in a leadership role.

America today is in the enviable position of being able to fight complex conflicts on several fronts thousands of miles away without causing many bumps in the road back home.

There has been no rationing of goods and no draft to support our last decade spent at war. Only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population has served in the active military during this time, and we have had an all-volunteer military for decades. Unless Americans have a friend or family member serving, most see the war only in the media and can easily blot it out of their lives if they like.

Despite genuine support and respect for the troops, there are still many who feel they already get too much “handed to them.” One still comes across comments, even among some veterans, that the military is “just a job” that soldiers are paid well to do, and that there are other equally valuable vocations out there that are equally dangerous.

These opinions are often held or echoed by people who never served a day in uniform themselves.

What does this have to do with the suicide problem? No one else understands what soldiers go through except other soldiers. There is no way they can. If military leaders, soldiers, and veterans do not or will not support each other, no one else will.

To put it bluntly, only good Army leadership and fellow soldiers can solve this problem because no one else can identify with their experience.

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One Response

  1. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The mindset is that if we ignore the elephant in the room, it will leave eventually. If it doesn’t leave, we will force him to leave with powerpoint slides of how to prevent suicide. The Army is not taking the right action to prevent suicide – and they never will. The bottom line is that they just don’t care!! A bunch of damn bureaucrats.

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