Hot Topics

Article excerpt

A recent issue of TIME magazine devoted its cover story to the growing problem of soldier suicides. The article dealt principally with anecdotal accounts of two soldiers whose deaths surprised - perhaps shocked - their families, friends and colleagues. Also included are pages of statistics identifying the variety of victims, categories of probable causes, contributing factors and a summary statement that we have lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat deaths in the past year.

There are references to the Army suicide prevention program and observations by psychiatrists and psychologists addressing the whys and hows of the current situation. It is, overall, an enlightening exposure of the problems and an informative presentation of the Army's efforts to combat the trend.

Nowhere, however, in this or the many other news reports is attention given to what I believe is the underlying cause: the stress created in the entire force by the mission requirements of the past decade. Since the 9/11 attacks, the Army has been continually committed to an operational tempo that has returned soldiers to combat or to other "hardship" (unaccompanied) tours of duty at a pace and over a period not contemplated since World War II. For an Army whose career complement is mostly married, with family concerns and responsibilities, the pace is wearing and debilitating. It is also erosive to combat effectiveness. Courage is an expendable factor; soldiers become less confident of not only their own survivability, but also of their willingness and ability to fulfill responsibilities of their unit and for the "band of brothers." Over time, depression is not uncommon, and depression is almost a constant factor in the lives of the suicidal, but this is only half the problem.

When soldiers return from a combat tour they reenter a community that has been under equal stress. Their spouses and children have suffered the anxiety of awaiting the next casualty report from the combat zone. They are committed to the collective support of the next family to receive tragic news and the despondency that affects them all. Wives or husbands who have been single parents for a year or more then have to assimilate a familiar "stranger" who interrupts what had become a settled routine, but one who might be gone again too soon.

Corporals, sergeants, lieutenants and captains have to attend career education schools that separate them again for a few weeks or months, and when they return they may be assigned to a unit now preparing to deploy on another mission, a preparation that might send them to a national training center for another separation period. While this schedule does not always apply, it is a community constant that affects everyone, and there has been little respite for either soldiers or their families for the past 10 years. The cumulative effect is manifest in increases of domestic violence, divorce rates and, yes, suicides.

The Army has been too small for its mission load for many years, and the portent for the future is more of the same. Only a return to an adequately sized force can promise relief for this situation.

A second hot topic is the leaking of classified information to the news media and thus to the world at large. Speculation about the sources of such leaks and about efforts to expose or to cover up the identity of the transgressors is evident in many news reports and opinion columns. …