The Broken Band of Brothers: A Sociological Response to Soldier Suicide

Article excerpt

Suicide continues to be a major problem facing our Army. Although there are numerous campaigns to mitigate this problem, I believe that we are spending too much of our efforts and funding on the psychological aspect of the problem and not enough on the sociological aspects. The foundation of the Army is based on the team concept. Units spend many months developing social relations, building teams to work as a fluid entity. Once their mission is complete and they begin their reset cycle, however, the soldiers' support structure is rapidly dismantled, and they are left alone to deal with the implications of their isolation.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. I am merely providing the perspective of one former company commander who saw soldiers fall prey to the temptation of suicide both during their time in Iraq and after their return home. I also saw how important it is to appreciate the sociological dimension of their service, since I believe their problem largely stems from the frequent Army turnover that soldiers face, which puts untold pressure on these men and women.

The Army claims to be taking a holistic approach to the problem of soldiers' suicide, but most of the resources target the individual soldier at the psychological level and do little to address the soldier who is socialized prior to deployment to work together with his or her company as a team.

The Army's suicide prevention program provides multiple tools to help commanders combat this problem. One of the most recent additions to the program was estabUshing a universal web site, www.preventsuicide.army.mil, that makes it easier for soldiers and family members to find out where they can seek assistance. The site provides resources as well as presentations and links for commanders that can help educate their organizations and reduce the problem. Most importantly, this site provides military access to OneSource and other venues in which soldiers can talk to a trained psychologist. This is a great tool for commanders and soldiers, but it does not fully address all of the factors that cause soldier suicides.

"The summer season traditionally represents the Army's peak transition time frame as soldiers and Department of the Army civilians relocate between commands and installations," said COL Chris Philbrick, director, Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, in a recent press release. "This turbulent period often compounds the amount of stress faced by our Army and members of the Army family." I agree with COL Philbrìck that stress compounds the problem, but I believe the issue of soldiers' relocation has a much greater impact on their mental health than we realize. Soldiers experience many emotional challenges during a deployment, but they face those challenges with their "battle buddies," who help them get through difficult times. In fact, one of the Army's recent success stories was chronicled in the Monterey (Calif.) County Herald and involved an Army specialist removing the firing pin from his battle buddy's weapon, which foiled his attempt to fake his own life.

The crux of the problem as I see it is this: After most deployments, most soldiers unfortunately lose contact with their battle buddies. They either have a permanent change of station (PCS), or they reach their expiration term of service. The PCS usually occurs after a mandated 90-day stabilization period or is based on their follow-on assignment time line. For most soldiers, remaining in contact with their battle buddies or former chain of command - soldiers who have a firm grasp on their life history and have helped them deal with many of their personal or emotional problems - is a major challenge that goes unaddressed. In essence, we break up the "band of brothers" before soldiers have had the opportunity to reintegrate and develop new relationships, leaving them feeling isolated and feeling that no one understands their situation. As a result, they look for a drastic - catastrophic - way out of their feelings of alienation and isolation. …