A few months ago, I wrote about how military spouses can be an unofficial security unit on their respective bases. The need for operational security (OPSEC) continues to be a priority, both on and off post. Keeping your eyes peeled and maintaining a heightened state situational awareness are a couple of ways military spouses and families can serve their duty stations, their neighbors and our country. Bad dudes are out there, looking for chinks in our armor. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist…don’t want to, but probably will…but somewhere, maybe close to where you are, there are enemies both foreign and domestic looking for some way to visit mayhem, destruction and death upon us, our infrastructure and the American way of life. And it is our unspoken duty as spouses and family members to discern potential threats in and around our duty stations and homes.
But recent reports indicate that one of the greatest threats to our forces is not some IED manufacturer or some homicidal lunatic with a bandolier of bombs strapped to his torso.
The leading cause of death for active duty soldiers in 2012 was suicide.
As of last month, the number of active duty suicides outpaced the number of soldiers KIA in 2012 during Operation Enduring Freedom. At the end of November, the number of suicides reached 177, with December statistics still to come. The suicide rate in the Army rose by 9% since it began its suicide awareness and prevention initiative in 2009, and 54% since 2007. And while the Army’s statistics are a little fuzzy about whether 2012 set a tragic record for suicides, or whether suicides had ever before outnumbered combat casualties, the message is clear: perhaps the biggest threat to a soldier’s life has become the soldier himself.
When we were in Germany, every third AFN commercial concerned suicide awareness and prevention. You almost became numb to the military’s outreach efforts, because after a while, it just became white noise. That is, until I got a letter from a friend who I knew was hurting from a breakup. The letter contained most of the usual pleasantries and chit-chat, but after the second or third time I read the phrase “if something should happen to me”, combined with his request to pass along his love and well wishes to his ex, an alarm went off.
Nothing obvious, no glaring signs of distress. But those AFN commercials about keeping alert for signs of despair and despondency within your unit, your family and your neighborhood had sunk in. I’m pleased to say that my concern was unfounded, and that the other friends who I contacted and asked to check up on him found him to be fine.
It could have been otherwise.
I knew that I could have been misinterpreting his words. I knew that asking mutual friends to check in on him could have embarrassed him and created a terribly awkward situation. But I also knew that I would have been haunted for the rest of my days if I had done nothing and the unthinkable had happened. He appreciated what I did, and understood why I had done it. But even if he didn’t, and even if my suspicions had ruined our friendship, I wouldn’t have regretted doing it for a second.
The military will continue to monitor and extend its suicide awareness and prevention efforts. Sadly, suicide rates in the Army have risen steadily for years. The effects of repeated deployments and its attendant strains on marriages and families seem to have snowballed. And while chaplains and counselors are fantastic resources for soldiers and family members who are hurting and in need, someone, somehow has got to put them together. I’m only guessing, but I’d think that if someone were seriously thinking of ending his or her own life, they probably would not give much or any thought to contacting a chaplain or counselor. They think they’re in a place beyond help, beyond solutions, and are probably not being optimally rational about their behavior. The military has spent countless dollars on suicide awareness and prevention, and the problem has only gotten worse. If the blackness of one’s life has become so profound and all-consuming that suicide seems to be the best option, I wouldn’t think that someone would be open and inclined to reaching out to someone who would try to talk them out of it. I wish it were different; I don’t think it is.
And so I think it is quite appropriate to appeal to fellow spouses and families to be alert for signs of depression in and around post. And I don’t think it requires any special training or credentials to read the signs of someone whose life seems to be spinning out of control.
- Has an ordinarily friendly and upbeat person become withdrawn and distant?
- Has someone been giving their possessions away for no apparent reason?
- Has their language become darker and more ominous?
- Is someone’s recycling container, which used to contain a few empty cans of Coors Light, now filled with hard liquor bottles?
These are just a few of perhaps dozens of signals that suggest that something is not right.
It doesn’t take a fancy degree, religious ordination or a prescription pad to help out, or at least put out feelers for any indication that someone has ideas of hurting him or herself. Yes, I know how annoying it can be to have people constantly in your business. You don’t want to be that irritating and intrusive presence in someone’s life. But expressing your concern doesn’t have to be confrontational or nosy. Either way, I would find it hard to be upset with someone who was acting with good intentions and for my best interest. Simple, harmless questions like “Hey, how are you?” or “I haven’t seen you in a while; what’s been going on?” could very well lead to your saving someone’s life. Maybe it has been the case that nobody has taken interest in a servicemember’s life in a long time; that ‘generosity of spirit’ could be the lifeline that an isolated servicemember needs.
Every one of us acts differently when we are at work. No matter what we do, each one of us wears the ‘game face’ on the job, the squared away professional…and then, to varying degrees, we turn it off when we come home. Soldiers are no different. They can be 100% HOOAH on duty, but when they get home, perhaps another, more sinister self sets in and takes hold. We military families are in a unique position to be able to read those subtle indicators. When the ACUs come off and someone’s ‘off-duty’ self is free from supervision and authority figures, signs of self-destructive despair could begin to emerge. Who else but neighbors and friends are there to take note of it? All you’d have to do is make a phone call (to a chaplain or the Behavioral Health Center) if you sense that someone’s behavior seems beyond the pale of just being a little down for a while. If you strongly think that someone could be a danger to him or herself, get past that squeamish need to stay out of it, and get on the phone.