Monday, June 18, 2012

Soldiers and Suicide: the humanness of it all

 I first read it online, confirmed it in the newspaper, then saw it on TV: the report of the surge in suicides among American military troops. It was even more disturbing to learn many of the suicides taking place are among troops that aren’t even involved in combat. But it was what somebody said at the grocer that filled me with rage.
According to that news story last week, there were 154 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops in the first 155 days of 2012; an average of one person per day. That mark is outpacing the number of American forces killed in action in the Afghanistan conflict – about 50 percent more – according to Pentagon stats.
I consider our military troops the toughest hombres on the planet. Unlike many countries, whose personnel are drafted into service, our armed forces consist of committed young men and women who feel ‘called’ to accept the challenge and serve our country. In my admittedly biased opinion, anyone who suggests the American soldiers who took their lives ‘weren’t tough enough’ needs their head examined. Sadly, that’s exactly what I overheard a guy say in a grocery store. Then I read a similar comment in the paper by an Army officer.
It was revolting to read a Major General quip in his blog that soldiers considering suicide just need to, ‘…deal with your problems like the rest of us.’ Fortunately, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s top military honcho, disagreed with that general ‘in the strongest possible terms.’
I was later enlightened by an Army friend of mine (82nd Airborne Division) who said suicide rates tend to be higher among younger service people. A central cause, he explained, is that recruits are removed from their support systems (friends and family) and thrust into extraordinarily stressful situations. He also stated that while you can make new friends, it’s not the same.
Then he told me about the ‘new guy/gal’ syndrome. The movies got this right: a new recruit joining a unit is not highly regarded. In fact, troops fresh out of basic training have zero status among those who’ve seen action; they’re FNG’s (don’t ask). The result? Isolation which, when combined with stress and absence of a familiar support system, can lead to fateful or even fatal decisions.
Our troops are well-trained but they’re not robots. They are human beings; each possesses varying levels of courage and fortitude, as well as doubts and fears. In the course of their jobs, they’re often ordered to do impossible things. We expect their best under the worst conditions: they make life and death decisions under high stress, with little sleep and often no time to think. Even the strongest person can bend under these conditions. Or break.
There are some among us who view war and military conflict through the lens of old Rambo movies and/or new video ‘shooter’ games. These bozos buy into the utter fantasy that somehow earning a Purple Heart medal will make up for losing life or limb in combat – that it’s heroic to simply ‘shake off’ the aftermath of an IED, like a quarterback who takes a hard sack. But improvised explosive devices pack a bigger wallop than a linebacker. And are decidedly more life-threatening.
I’m not sure why one person bends while another breaks but I do know this: despite the often inhuman jobs they’re given, I believe the men and women serving in our armed forces are among the most human of us all. Let’s try and remember that about them (and vets) as we go about our daily lives.

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