Unarmed and Dangerous: The Holistic Preparation of Soldiers for Combat

By Barrett, Clark C. | Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Unarmed and Dangerous: The Holistic Preparation of Soldiers for Combat


Barrett, Clark C., Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry


Within the U.S. military, incidents of suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to escalate unabated despite efforts to provide reactive, posttrauma treatment. A new focus on proactive, preemptive physical, mental, and moral/ethical training is required prior to combat. Methods pioneered and validated in the early 1990s are available and are ready for implementation, but the military must use a holistic, focused strategy to do so.

Keywords: suicide; military; posttraumatic stress disorder; combat; preparations

According to World War II (WWII) correspondent Ernie Pyle:

The front-line soldier I knew lived for months like an animal, and was a veteran in the cruel, fierce world of death . . . The front-line soldier has to harden his inside as well as his outside or he would crack under the strain. (Stanton, 2009, paras. 1-2)

Our military is cracking under the strain, in part, because we have not done enough to harden the inside as well as the outside of our front-line soldiers. Since 2001, suicides in the U.S. armed forces have escalated rapidly; "3341 suicides in 2009, more than any other year since records began in 1980. Half of those service members who committed suicide had served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan" (Cogan, 2010, paras. 1-4). For every suicide, there are five times as many attempts. Consistent statistics are difficult to find, but each service reports increases similar to the following U.S. Army data.

Table 1 shows the clear growth of active-duty U.S. Army soldier suicide rate over the last 7 years. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in fall 2001 until summer 2009, a total of 817 U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide, more than the number of soldiers lost in combat in Afghanistan over the same period (Thompson, 2010, para. 1).

The year 2010 was on path to exceed the average suicide rate (138) of the last 3 years. There were 79 active duty suicides in the first 6 months of 2010.

What leads service members to take their own life? There are many possible factors. Triggers vary from "relationship breakdown, financial problems, substance abuse, tensions in unit, [to] traumatic events" (Cogan, 2010, para. 5).

As a battalion commander of a unit deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2008, I can relate my own experience. Our unit completed a demanding, but low-key convoy security mission, with very few attacks on our 600-plus person unit. Nevertheless, my soldiers sought chaplain care in 58 instances. In 6 instances, 4 of which involved suicidal ideation, these soldiers were forwarded to additional behavioral health care (A. L. Wahl, personal communication, November 8, 2009).

Following our return home, three soldiers expressed feelings of suicidal ideation or required immediate medical attention for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the commander, these disturbing trends sparked my interest and drove me to further study. I was concerned with the prevalence of the problem and worried that the actions being taken were more reactive than proactive.

Force-wide estimates now suggest that up to "20-30% of veterans are experiencing some degree of PTSD" (Cogan, 2010, para. 7). A 2008 Department of Defense survey of 28,500 service members reflected that PTSD-like symptoms rose, on average, from 7% in 2005 to 11% in 2008, with larger jumps from the soldiers (9%-13%) and marines (8%-15%) over the same period (Robbins, 2009). According to General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, "soldiers who are suffering from PTSD are six times more likely to commit suicide than those who are not" (Thompson, 2009, para. 3).

The military reaction has been ineffective. Despite huge efforts at great expense, the suicides keep escalating. In 2009, safety stand-downs and a three-phase program of mandatory suicide prevention (SP) training were instituted. The program consisted of briefings and slick videos, with well-meaning but questionable results. …

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