Enemy in the Mirror; the Army Has a Bigger Problem Than Private Guns

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Enemy in the Mirror; the Army Has a Bigger Problem Than Private Guns


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Suicide is the third-leading noncombat cause of death in the U.S. military, according to Department of the Army data. On at least one Army post, the response was a misguided effort to require some soldiers to register personal firearms.

The Army would not tell us how many soldiers have used private weapons to kill themselves. In the general population, firearms account for about half of all suicides nationwide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, owning a firearm doesn't raise the risk of playing Russian roulette, just as owning a car doesn't increase the risk of intentionally driving off a cliff in desperation like Thelma and Louise. There is an underlying intention that manifests from what physicians call suicidal ideation, which is the process of thinking about and planning to end one's life.

Some overzealous Army commanders appear to categorize private gun ownership, rather than depression and desperation, as the problem. In March, soldiers in Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., were told they would have to start registering their privately owned arms with their command. Post spokesman Cathy Gramling told us that the order came from the subordinate unit commander. The soldiers also were told to provide the storage location of their personal weapons along with information on their state-issued concealed carry permits. Ms. Gramling told us the commander who spearheaded the effort thought he was acting within his authority to address a number of negligent discharges of privately owned weapons. The program has since been suspended.

An Army spokesman did not respond to repeated inquiries about the number of times such efforts to collect soldiers' personal gun-ownership data have occurred. However, he confirmed that it has happened before and acknowledged that it has been at least partially driven by the Army's suicide problem. Every so often, this story bubbles up, and it is perceived to be an Army directive, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Nathan Banks told us. While noting that the Army does not have a directive or policy on the subject, he defended such registration efforts. Based upon the recent high number of [personally owned weapons] accidents and fatalities, unit commanders are trying to determine just how many of their soldiers have such weapons, he said.

The suicide problem is particularly acute in the Army, where at least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Last year saw the fourth straight annual increase. There were 67 suicides in 2004, according to Army data, and 60 in 2003, the year the United States invaded Iraq. There already have been 56 reported Army suicides through March of this year.

The needless loss of one life is one too many, but the Army trend is particularly worrisome. …

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