Editorial Column: Army Suicides May Pass Army Combat Deaths in January 2009

PTSD Combat Blog

February 7, 2009 – The continued rise of OEF/OIF veteran suicides reported by the military over the past weeks isn’t very surprising news for longtime followers of this issue; but, it’s no less alarming.

Swamped with conferences, classes, and organizing a Feb. 13 event, Renaissance by Fire: Returning Veterans, Society & the Forging of a New Enlightenment, at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Vet Art Project, I’m only now able to offer a few reflections on this troublesome news. First, let’s gauge where we’ve been before looking at the latest data.

In December 2007, prepping for my testimony before Congress, I tallied up all of the available officially-reported DoD/VA suicide figures and felt what I’d found was significant: If we added these reported OEF/OIF veteran suicides to the running Afghanistan and Iraq KIA count, the total casualties at the time would have been at least 10 percent higher.

In September 2008, I did another count of the official OEF/OIF suicide data (full breakdown and lots of other related stats collected there) reported by the DoD and VA. During this layman’s research, I found that the suicide portion of the overall KIA count had increased to nearly 15 percent.

Over the past few weeks, we have learned that 1) both the Army and Marines have seen increases in their 2008 active-duty suicides — even in the face of aggressive campaigns to reduce their incidence — the Army’s rate higher than at any other point in the 30 years that they have been tracking such figures; and 2) that, judging by January’s reported record-shattering month of Army suicides — where more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than were killed-in-action fighting the enemy on Afghan and Iraqi combat fields — 2009 is trending ominously.

Last week, preparing for an interview by NotAlone.com (the audio has not been posted as of yet, but I would highly recommend your checking out their work in the meantime), I added up the just-released figures:

128  – confirmed 2008 active-duty Army suicides
15  – suspected 2008 active-duty Army suicides
41  – confirmed 2008 active-duty Marine suicides
184 active-duty 2008 Army/Marine suicides

Per icasualties.org, 2008’s total OEF/OIF KIA count was 469.

Doing the math quickly: 184 of 469 — or 28 percent — of our OEF/OIF veteran casualties seem to be as a result of suicide: an astonishing jump. And it’s important to note: This figure only reflects the active-duty element in the Army and Marines.

This number does not include Air Force or Navy suicides, nor veterans separated from service but not yet in the VA system, nor any suicides of veterans in the VA system.

So, the reality is much more dire than what the numbers being bandied about in the news today reflect, unfortunately.

On January 29, 2009, PBS NewsHour covered the story:

More bad news arrived Thursday. NPR (full audio at link):

    In January, 24 U.S. soldiers are believed to have committed suicide — seven confirmed cases and 17 more awaiting confirmation. By comparison, last January there were only five suicides in the Army.

    Last month’s total is not just the highest monthly total since the Army started counting in 1980; it is more deaths than were sustained in combat last month by all branches of the armed forces combined.

    Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, says that the Army is actively looking into the deaths and is trying to figure out why the suicides are happening.

    “If we knew why, in every single instance we would, in fact, be able to stop this problem,” Chiarelli tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “We’ve got to try to find out why the numbers continue to go up.”

Friday MSNBC interview with General Peter Chiarelli:

Much more in extended.

Click on ‘Article Link’ below tags for more…

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Let’s start off with a sliver of good news amidst all the bleakness.

Many military families who have lost loved ones over the years have been consistently advocating for a change in the way the military prepares its troops before — and after — combat.

Not only should attention be paid to physically preparing the body for combat, but service members deserve to have the very best psychological support and training as well to better manage the stresses of going into battle and reintegrating once home. At long last, they no longer appear to be the lone voices advocating for this change. Suzanne M. Schaferr, AP:

    To battle a growing suicide rate, the Army may have to start teaching soldiers how to handle stress from the first day they take their entry oath, the service’s top trainer said Friday.

    “The new idea I suppose I would offer is getting at it right from the beginning of the career,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new four-star commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, which operates 33 schools and training centers at 16 Army installations.

    Dempsey, who led soldiers during two combat tours in Iraq, was questioned about the issue after addressing 1,150 soldiers who graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest training installation. …

    Dempsey said the issue was vital to an Army that has been at war for seven years and may well be at war for several more.

    “I think we need to take a look at a comprehensive fitness program … that right from the beginning of a young man or woman’s experience in the Army, we begin building coping skills before the stress comes. Because once the stress hits, then you are really into last-minute intervention,” Dempsey said.

    The general said the Army is working with the Department of Defense on new approaches, and he hoped some action might be taken “within the next year.”

    Dempsey said the new training could include elemental things, such as learning to balance a checkbook so a soldier with a young family doesn’t fall into debt and open the way to further stress.

    “What we are trying to do is identify skills we can give our soldiers, whether they are intellectual skills, physical skills, spiritual skills … so that when the stress hits, you are armed to deal with it,” Dempsey said.

Back to the bleak via Barbara Starr and Mike Mount, CNN:

    Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard, said that the long, cold months of winter could be a major contributor to the January spike.

    “There is more hopelessness and helplessness because everything is so dreary and cold,” she said. But Platoni said she sees the multiple deployments, stigma associated with seeking treatment and the excessive use of anti-depressants as ongoing concerns for mental-health professionals who work with soldiers.

    Those who are seeking mental-health care often have their treatment disrupted by deployments. Deployed soldiers also have to deal with the stress of separations from families. …

    Platoni also said that while the military has made a lot of headway in training leaders on how to deal with soldiers who may be suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, “there is still a huge problem with leadership who shame them when they seek treatment.”

    The anti-depressants prescribed to soldiers can have side effects that include suicidal thoughts. Those side effects reportedly are more common in people 18 to 24.

Luis Martinez, ABC News:

    The numbers prompted enough concern among the Army’s senior leadership that Army Secretary Pete Geren made the unusual decision of briefing Congress on the increase and ordering the data’s public release.

    The release of last year’s numbers prompted the service to order a “stand down” for a window of 30 days beginning Feb. 15, when soldiers will be trained to help identify behaviors that could lead to suicidal behavior and help them intervene.

    The stand down will be followed for three additional months by a “chain-teaching program” focused on suicide prevention. It is the Army’s biggest initiative ever to battle the rising number of suicides. …

    Last year’s Army suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers was also the first time since the Vietnam War that the rate was higher than the adjusted civilian rate. …

    The number of Army suicides last year was spread fairly evenly among the ranks of those serving at home and abroad. Thirty-seven soldiers committed suicide while deployed overseas — mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan, 50 of the suicides occurred after their return and 44 were by soldiers who had never deployed. Fifty-three percent of the suicides among those back from overseas deployments occurred more than a year after their return. …

    The total number of [Army] suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 now stands at 171. The overwhelming majority of the suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan last year, or 78 percent, were among first-time deployers.

And what of the non-active-duty Afghanistan and/or Iraq veteran suicides that don’t show up in the latest Army/Marine figures? They should be counted, too. I continue to collect these incidents for the PTSD Timeline, as I have done since 2005, but classes have postponed my physically adding them for the time being. Unfortunately, they continue to pile up. One recent case reported by Christian Jennings, WALB-Channel 10 [NBC-Georgia]:

    One family in Thomasville knows first hand what it’s like to loose a son struggling with PTSD. Pvt. Joseph McMath died at the young age of 24 on January 13, 2009, from a drug overdose. Proud parents David and Linda McMath can only smile at the memory of their beloved son. “He was just a good hearted person,” said Joseph’s mother Linda McMath.

    Pvt. Joseph Aaron McMath was a veteran of the United States Army. He served in the Striker Brigade Unit in Iraq.

    “It was 9/11/2001…he signed up, and went to Iraq in 2004, and he did 2 tours of duty, back to back,” she said. He was stationed in Ft. Lewis, Washington for three years….but it was his year overseas that changed him forever.

    “He did have a nervous breakdown over there. There was also we found out a shockwave from a bomb that went off close to him and it slung him 500 feet,” said his mom. When he returned from war in February of 2005, his life began a downward spiral.

    “For four years after the war, he was not Joseph, he was somebody else,” said his father David McMath.

    “We finally got him diagnosed with severe PTSD and also with traumatic brain injury,” said Ms. McMath. … Joseph’s doctor told the McMath’s that their son’s case was the worst he’d ever seen.

    “He would be very very depressed to the point that he would not even get out of bed. He got to the point where he didn’t really enjoy life like he did at one time. Flashbacks, he had flashbacks so severe during the night he would have to just about have to be knocked completely out with medications in order to get any sleep,” his parents said.

    And on January 13, 2009 it was a deadly combination of drugs that took his life. Joseph McMath overdosed on his medications, his mother saw her son lying lifeless on his bathroom floor. … “The guys that come back, they do have a different personality, and they do have addictions and problems. But these people need all the support they can get, please don’t turn your back on them,” she said.

This family is struggling to pay their son’s funeral expenses.

Details on offering them some help can be found at WALB’s website (scroll down to the bottom of the page). [On a related note, see Are PTSD-Medicated Veterans Dying in Sleep — or Committing Suicide?]

Another recently-reported suicide: Michael Palmer, 23, a two-tour Iraq vet and father of one who killed himself at the end of January. The cases are seemingly endless.

Another look at how suicide affects units large and small comes from Matthew D. LaPlante, Salt Lake City Tribune:

    Since 2005, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the lives of two soldiers from the Utah National Guard.

    Suicide has claimed 10.

    In response to an alarming increase of suicide in its ranks, the military has hired a virtual army of social workers, mental health professionals and suicide-prevention counselors to work with its members. But for the fourth consecutive year, the Army has reported an increase in the number of soldiers it has lost to suicide. …

    The Utah guard lost three soldiers to suicide in 2005, four in 2006, one in 2007 and two in 2008. Officials said statistics from prior years were unavailable because the Guard’s personnel officers didn’t track suicides separately from other deaths until 2005, but at least one soldier killed himself in 2004 while on duty in Afghanistan with the 211th Aviation Battalion. …

    Veterans advocacy groups say the military’s data undercounts the problem. That’s because it doesn’t include people like Jason Ermer — an Iraq War veteran who killed himself after leaving the service. The 28-year-old shot himself in the head in the foothills near his Ogden home on Dec. 31, 2007.

    Ermer’s mother believes that the Army abandoned her son. She says he was forced out of the service after returning from combat with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “He was heartbroken,” Rosa Ermer said. “He went over to Iraq, he served his country with pride, and then they took everything away from him. They knew he had problems and they didn’t take care of them. They just got rid of him.”

The fact that there was no tracking prior to 2005 shows the absolute disinterest in understanding the full scope of the after-effects of war at the time…dismaying to say the least for anyone interested in researching and understanding this issue, maddening for military families dealing with these losses.

Megan Feldman and Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer Blogs:

    Jeffrey R. McKinney, Andrew Velez and Ted Westhusing are not statistics. They are sons, husbands, brothers and fathers who committed suicide while fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. But in recent months, they have become nothing more than numbers that keep adding up to what’s become one of the most under-reported stories to emerge in wartime …

    “This story’s on the back burner now,” says Charles McKinney of Bedford, whose son, 19-year veteran First Sergeant Jeff McKinney, killed himself in front of his men in Adhamiyah, Iraq, on July 11, 2007. “I understand there are more pressing issues, like the economy. And the war in Iraq appears to have toned down. But now we’re feeling the after-effects. This was my son’s second tour. But after his first tour, he told me — and there had been a real bad incident where kids were killed — he told me, ‘I’ll never be the same again.'” …

    Since Jeff McKinney’s death, his father has been in constant contact with Stephen L. Robinson, the director of veterans affairs for Veterans for America and a former Army Ranger who’s served as a sort of liaison between vets’ families and politicians. [Robinson is the greatest force on this, along with Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense, that I have personally ever come across in four years of covering this issue…]

    There had been an attempt to hold Congressional hearings concerning soldiers’ suicides: Last May, Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri introduced the so-called “HONOR Warriors Act,” which would “improve and enhance the mental health care benefits available to members of the Armed Forces and veterans” as well as “enhance counseling and other benefits available to survivors of members of the Armed Forces and veterans.” But the bill — co-sponsored by, among others, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama — got nowhere.

    Republican Senator John Cornyn called for an investigation into the suicides at the Houston Recruiting Battalion. Charles McKinney hopes that, sooner than later, there will be a full inquiry throughout the military.

    “I can’t bring my son back,” says McKinney, himself a former Marine. “But I just want to call attention to this. It’s a problem and not being addressed fully. The military has taken steps, but so much more can be done. I get angry, and that doesn’t do em any good. I’m not going to let Jeff’s death be in vain. He was a 19-year-veteran, he had a beautiful wife, a newborn son, and he was ready to retire. … These are not statistics. This is real. And it did not need to happen.”

Jon Soltz, OIF vet and VoteVets chairman, MSNBC this week:

While it’s great to see any discussion at all on this topic in the national media, I wish that other voices could also be included when such issues are tackled. While Soltz did a good job, I think there are family members who have lost loved ones following their return home who, in the wake of that jarring loss, have been stirred to do remarkable work on the specific issue of veteran suicide. Why aren’t we seeing them interviewed? Why aren’t they able to share what they’ve learned with us, to share the resources they have found in the wake of their loss?

I would challenge the media to offer these families more seats at the table when discussing the one issue that they know more intimately than any of us would care to know. Non-profit groups, community counselors and others should also be tapped for their knowledge and resources at such times. It’s not enough to just present the data, explain things away by pointing to the past administration or the strain in the military or VA or personal lives of our veterans, and then simply move on to the next story without offering any direction for those still alive and struggling today.

Our media needs to be more responsible than that.

NPR, not surprisingly, did give room for such a voice when it rebroadcast a 2008 interview  presenting one family’s experience following the 2005 combat zone suicide of their son, Jason Scheuerman (sigh — why do so many of these stories reflect such a high level of disregard for both our troops and military families by those in position to do better by dealing more sensitively and forthrightly with such tragedies?):

    When Chris Scheuerman found out his son had died in Iraq, he says, he knew something was amiss.

    “I believe we found out on Aug. 1, which is the worst day of my life,” he says. “I was coming home from dinner and a minivan pulled up to the house and from the minivan came an officer and a chaplain and I knew, right then, why they were there. I knew that my son was dead.”

    Scheuerman is no stranger to military operations. He’s a retired master sergeant and trains soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

    “Eventually, that evening, they said it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At that point I asked them, ‘How could that be?'” Scheuerman says.

    Because the Army was reluctant to provide details, it would take Scheuerman the good part of two years to answer that question. Only after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and appealing to a local member of Congress for help, was he able to fit the puzzle pieces together, he says. The resulting image would haunt him and leave him revving to change the military’s mental health system.

Scheuerman went on to testify before Congress and has continued to work to ensure that other military families are spared having to go through what they had to go through. Obviously, there is no end in sight for this work.

Kudos to Lizette Alvarez for her coverage this week in the New York Times. These are the voices and this is the information that we need to have reported far and wide in all media channels:

    Linda Bean, whose son, Sgt. Coleman S. Bean, killed himself in New Jersey in September after two tours of duty in Iraq, one on active-duty with Army and the other with the Maryland National Guard, said it was essential for the Army to persuade soldiers to get mental health help. But Ms. Bean said the reality was that most soldiers were reluctant to seek help for fear it would derail their careers.

    The Army needs to encourage its soldiers to get help outside the military system, she said. There are a number of groups willing to help counsel service members and veterans – Give an Hour, The Soldiers Project, Vets4Vets – but the information is not widely available.

    “Soldiers won’t take advantage of the Army’s programs because they don’t want an official jacket following them,” said Ms. Bean, whose son received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder after his first deployment but showed no signs of distress after his second tour of duty. “Let the grateful nation do its part. These groups want to do their part.”

More  combat stress resources.

And, finally, the Air Force has released a number of suicide prevention videos over the years. An especially poignant one:

There is still so much to discuss on this issue, but this is all I have time to post on for now. It’s an understatement to say we are not doing well by our military families as a society.

Deplorable state of affairs.

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