Families of war suicide victims deserve supportOne day in 1970, I was sitting in a classroom in radio school at the Naval Training Center in San Diego.
By: John Crisp, The Dickinson Press
One day in 1970, I was sitting in a classroom in radio school at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a vague shape flashing past the window. A young sailor had jumped from the roof into the courtyard three stories below, making his separate peace in the Vietnam War, going permanently absent without leave.
His reasons are unknown to me. Perhaps he was predisposed toward suicide by some genuine mental disorder. Or maybe he was unable to cope with being away from the security of home for the first time. He may have been despondent over a lost girlfriend.
Of course, a certain number of young men his age kill themselves each year, and his suicide while in the Navy may have been a coincidence, rather than a consequence of his military service.
Nevertheless, significant inherent stresses are associated with life in the military, even in peacetime. Many young soldiers, sailors and Marines put in very long hours at difficult and remote duty stations, separated from family, friends and everything that makes life seem safe, comfortable and normal.
Perhaps that’s why, in 1972, a shipmate of mine left his shoes carefully aligned at the rail of the USS Bainbridge and stepped over the side into the South China Sea.
When the stresses of real combat are added to the innate rigors of military life, suicides are inevitable. And after eight years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, with multiple deployments and extended combat tours, the Army is experiencing an increase in the number of soldiers who take their own lives.
In 2007, 115 soldiers committed suicide; in 2008, at least 140; and this year, through October, 133 soldiers have killed themselves, a pace that exceeds last year’s.
Journalist James Dao reports on this phenomenon in a recent New York Times article, focusing on an element that calls for attention at the highest levels of our government: Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln, the families of soldiers who die in action, whether by hostile fire or by accident, have received letters of condolence from the president of the United States.
Beginning with the Clinton administration, however, the families of soldiers who commit suicide, even in combat zones, have not received such letters, Dao reports.
Apparently the rationale for this policy involves the notion that suicide is a dishonorable act. And there’s the concern that any policy that works to remove the stigma of suicide might encourage other overstressed soldiers to do the same.
These points are well taken, but they are overwhelmed by an insufficient sense of sympathy and appreciation for the young men and women who have volunteered to serve our country, without the pressure of a draft, and been asked to fight under wretched conditions in wars with elusive enemies and vague objectives.
Furthermore, we’ve asked them to keep fighting indefinitely in wars that no one knows how to end or even whether a conventional ending is possible. It’s asking a lot of them.
The fact is, some psyches can handle more than others, and the 133 soldiers who have died by their own hands so far this year may have already given, after the horrors of modern combat, the “last full measure” that they had in them. In their own way, suicides are victims of war, as well.
Mr. President, err on the side of compassion and write letters to the families of soldiers who have killed themselves in a combat zone or within two years of returning from combat.
After all, letters of condolence are not for the dead. American families have given up their children in pursuit of a questionable and uncertain foreign policy. More tragedy lies ahead in Afghanistan. These families need condolence as much, if not more, as the families of soldiers who are killed in combat.
— Crisp teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at email@example.com.