to take brass and fire into his mouth
January 29, 2009 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Army reports highest rate of soldier suicides for three decades in 2008.

Even the up-and-coming are at risk. Stars & Stripes mentions that leadership may bear some blame. Will twice the money for family programs help? [title: line from "Eulogy", PFC B. Miller 1980-2004]
posted by batmonkey (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Eulogy is FOR PFC B. Miller, by Brian Turner.
posted by batmonkey at 9:24 PM on January 29, 2009

Maybe they hate their freedoms.
posted by Balisong at 9:41 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the soldier suicides are this high, I don't even want to know what the rates for veterans will be. I'm a young guy (in the lower half of my 20s, still in school, etc), and I'm taken aback when I realize that I'm older than so many of these kids. PTSD is going to hit them hard, and it's going to be difficult as hell for them to reintegrate into "normal society." I can only imagine what it's like to fight an unpopular war, then come home to a ruined economy, perpetually haunted by the war environment.
posted by spiderskull at 10:39 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

But the conservatism that started the war seemed so compassionate!

Seriously, though, at least the soldiers that came home from Vietnam were spat upon, as awful as that must have been for them. The current soldiers come home to apathy. WHat must it be like, to go off and risk death or worse to serve your country, to return to find that your country has gotten bored and changed the channel, and that the government might at any minute decide that you're not done yet?

As bad as the concept of the draft is, and it is, Stop-Loss might be worse, in a way, because it takes those naive kids who were swayed by the army recruiters at the mall in the hopes of a decent salary or college education or any amount of things they'd surely get once they were "done" and then tells them they'll never be done. The tacit message, of course, is, "you'll never be done because there weren't nearly enough people as honorable and naive as you were, and your requests for better assistance and better body-armor etc. just made it tougher, so now you're on your own. Let us know when you've secured freedom already!"

What would your personal reaction be, when you can't be excused until the "War on Terror" is over?
posted by Navelgazer at 11:17 PM on January 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Astutely put, per usual.

Pondering that precise thing is what kept me from joining the Army in '89. I watched Gulf War I incredulous, too aware of how close in age I was to so many of the dead and maimed, grateful for MRR & Utne Reader for making me paranoid enough to question how much I really needed my education paid for.

I've a cousin in Kuwait and another in Baghdad, along with several friends and acquaintances distributed between the two. I worry for them. One of my social groups has already lost two to suicide after returning from deployment. I know there are people here who have been through this nightmare, directly. It's horrifying, and while I'm glad it's finally being recognised, it's a crime that it had to get to this point before they took it seriously.

It's going to be interesting, watching your generation and those following re-integrate with soldier peers as war wears on and the U.S. tries to find her ballast. Interesting and sad, I think. So many were just out of school and drunk on youthful patriotism or desperately trying to succeed somewhere, somehow. I hope I'm wrong. I hope we find some way to provide better recruitment, support, decision-making, and after-care for all those who care enough for their country and countrymen to die for them, if necessary.

I hope we find a better definition for "necessary".
posted by batmonkey at 11:37 PM on January 29, 2009

I can only imagine what it's like to fight an unpopular war, then come home to a ruined economy, perpetually haunted by the war environment.

"When we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss having people worth shooting." - Full Metal Jacket.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:05 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

It just barely edged above the suicide rate for the demographically-similar non-military population of the US for the first time.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:05 AM on January 30, 2009

The current soldiers come home to apathy. WHat must it be like, to go off and risk death or worse to serve your country, to return to find that your country has gotten bored and changed the channel, and that the government might at any minute decide that you're not done yet?

Or decide any minute that veterans' benefits are costing too much and cut them back. That's what I'm afraid of.

I don't know about apathy, but I do get the sense that 8 out of 10 "thank you so much for your service" remarks people say to me are obligatory, not really sincere. It's kind of patronizing, and I was never even 'over there'. I'd rather those people found something else to say, like the "bet you're glad to be back" angle. Some people do mean it, and I appreciate that, but you can tell who's faking.

Still, I think it's nicer than being spit on.
posted by ctmf at 1:27 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Navelgazer: "What would your personal reaction be, when you can't be excused until the "War on Terror" is over?"

As to that...

The Obama administration has decided that blood and iron, not hearts and minds, will be the new focus of the American military adventure in Afghanistan. Top Obama officials – anonymous, natch -- used the front page of the New York Times as a conduit for conveying the imperial will to the rabble this week. The basic strategy, it seems, will be the same one that professional nudnik Glenn Reynolds once proposed for the recalcitrant tribes of the Middle East: "more rubble, less trouble." ...

Then again, I guess we've got to do "whatever it takes" to win this thing -- because this the "good war," after all, isn't it? The war that all "serious" progressives were quick to say that they wholeheartedly supported, even while voicing their opposition to the invasion of Iraq -- which was "the wrong war at the wrong time." Indeed, their main complaint about the murderous berserking in Iraq was that it "took our eye off the ball" from the "central front in the War on Terror" in Afghanistan. This was the line consistently peddled by Obama (who never once declared, or even hinted, that the Iraq operation was an inherently criminal operation -- a horrendous moral abomination, a sickening mass atrocity -- and not just an inconvenient or ill-timed or badly-conducted endeavour). No, the Afghan War is the war "we had to fight," our progressive hawks all tell us, so we've got to see it through.
- Chris Floyd
posted by Joe Beese at 2:42 AM on January 30, 2009

Joining the army during wartime is a good way to die. Are people who join up generally more likely to be suicidal to begin with? Are the suicides higher among those who joined before the current wars started or after?
posted by pracowity at 3:59 AM on January 30, 2009

These sort of stories and situations tear me apart, emotionally and philosophically. On the one hand, they're the youth of America, deceived, cajoled, and nearly forced into the armed services, under the guise of "protecting their country." They don't know what they're signing up for, and they pay for it with, if not their lives, then their nerves, their sanity, their sense of well-being.

On the other hand, the pacifist in me, the part that opposes the death penalty and so forth thinks, "these people signed up to kill." America can be pretty brutal at times, but no one's holding a gun to your head making you sign up for the army. There are ways of helping America, or helping poor nations abroad without picking up a gun. By agreeing to shoot and kill, weren't they tacitly accepting the risk of such things?

I can't say I've ever felt the crushing poverty some of these people must have felt previous to their enlistment, but I still have such difficulty feeling sympathy at times for people who see "shoot and kill other human beings" on the job description, and sign up anyway. And that makes me feel awful, because really, if our places were reversed, had I been in their shoes, would I have been able to resist signing up?
posted by explosion at 4:38 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

explosion, you really don't know what you're talking about. People know what they're getting into when they sign up for the military. They're not a bunch of dumb, ignorant rednecks with minds full of idealistic patriotism. And they aren't a bunch of people who "signed up to kill". The military isn't just a giant gun. Not everyone who joins does it to be an infantryman and see combat. People join the military for a lot of very different reasons, and while some join to escape poverty, others have different things driving them. To suggest that the only reasons while someone would join the military is either because they were forced to by their situation, or because they are misguided is, quite frankly, insulting to servicemen and women. Maybe those are the only circumstances YOU would join in, but it's not the way things are.

Look, I'm in an ROTC. I'm hoping to join the Army Veterinary Corps (you know, the ones who are in Iraq trying to help maintain the agricultural infrastructure of the nation? Or the ones that are stateside trying to ensure the safety of the domestic food supply? Only one of the branches of the Army has "shoot and kill people" as it's main job description, and the soldiers that kill themselves don't just come from that branch). It's not because I want to kill people. Hell, I won't even carry a gun. My boyfriend is a marine, who came back from Iraq last March, and who leaves for Afghanistan sometime in the fall.

I hope to join the Army because I want to be a veterinarian, but I know myself and know that I need variety and challenge to stay engaged and happy. The military provides that, along with some nice benefits that sweeten the deal. Could I get deployed? Yes, but it's only a year, and its traveling and experiences things, even if those things aren't good things. Could I die? Yes, but I could get mugged tomorrow, too. Everything has a cost.

My roommate is going into the marines as an officer. Her mom cried about it, but my friend has spent all of college switching majors around and trying to find something she enjoys more than the military lifestyle, and she never found it. So she signed up, and she's loving it. No poverty drove her to it. She's very smart and talented and could be doing a hundred other things, but the military is what suits her.

My boyfriend graduated high school, realized he didn't want to do more schooling, and couldn't stand the thought of joining the rat race. So he enlisted. He's very type A and objective oriented, and the structured style of the military suits him very well. He's in supply, so he doesn't have to shoot people, though he does carry a gun around. He also came back from his last deployment very stressed and depressed, and in my mind, with a least minor PTSD, though he refused to see anyone about it (part of that stigma thing I was talking about). If he hadn't had a good support network, or if he had been a weaker person, could he have become a statistic? Note that he isn't at all soured on the military because of it, and is re-enlisting. He plans to be career.

My ROTC is full of similar stories. People who grew up in military families and just know that area best, or people who are just trying to get out of their small towns and think the military is the fastest route, or people who want to have a career after the military, but want to do their five years first to get college debt gone quick and get some excitement before they settle down to the monotony of the rest of their lives. Or people who are adrenaline junkies, trying to get into pilot school. Or people who are trying to put off "the real world" and think the military sounds more interesting than that other standby, grad school.

Here's what I know: wartime is a stressful situation. These soldiers are away from home, in a setting where there are no clear easy answers, with the threat of death (or having to kill) over their head all the time. There's a stigma against admitting coping problems, so a lot of people internalize stuff. Some people can handle the stress, and some can't, and the military doesn't do all it should to help provide the resources needed to cope.

But we shouldn't deny resources to these people, or keep trying and change the system to help them, just because we have wrong ideas about what put these people in this situation in the first place. (Besides, I've always thought the "well they knew when they enlisted" argument smacked of the "she was asking for it" defense.) This is a tragedy, and we shouldn't accept it as part and parcel of being in the military.
posted by internet!Hannah at 8:30 AM on January 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Seriously, though, at least the soldiers that came home from Vietnam were spat upon, as awful as that must have been for them.

Thanks for perpetuating a hippie-bashing myth meant to discredit the anti-war position. It's my understanding that there are no contemporaneous documents, news cuttings, interviews or first-hand memoirs that show that this ever actually occurred. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but the fact that such stories didn't begin to appear until years later fits the pattern of urban legend more than fact, and the telling of such stories seems generally tied to manipulation of public opinion politics more than history. While there are always exceptions, people generally choose to misremember the antiwar movement. In fact soldiers -- at least draftees and generally the enlisted ranks -- were regarded sympathetically by the movement, as victims.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:24 AM on January 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

They don't know what they're signing up for, and they pay for it with, if not their lives, then their nerves, their sanity, their sense of well-being.

We don't know what we're signing up for?

When I was an 18 year old college student in the winter of 2004, I drove to a recruiter's office of my own volition and started the process. I eventually signed an enlistment contract with the US Army, fully aware that it was very likely I'd be deployed within a year. I was not convinced of any delusion that they'd keep me stateside in some comfortable post, and my recruiter never tried to deceive my innocent child brain into believing that.

I enlisted of my own choice. I didn't know exactly what it would be like to be deployed, since no one knows what exactly anything will be like until they're actually doing it, but I was never twiddling my thumbs at basic thinking that I was just there for the college benefits and don't worry, it'll all be okay.

I can't say I've ever felt the crushing poverty some of these people must have felt previous to their enlistment, but I still have such difficulty feeling sympathy at times for people who see "shoot and kill other human beings" on the job description, and sign up anyway.

I can't tell if you're serious here, but I feel the need to point out that not every single job in the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy has "shoot and kill other human beings" listed in the description. There's a very easy explanation why: not every job has the focus of shooting and killing people.

I am a medic. Did I sign up to kill? My best buddy from basic is a 'water treatment specialist'. Did she sign up to kill? If I were to tell you I'm a three time Iraq veteran, would you assume I'm a killer?

And I have never felt crushing poverty in my life. I grew up in a comfortable upper middle class home, and my parents were able and willing to pay for my entire college education. I still enlisted.

No poverty, no evil recruiter, no delusions about "seeing the world"... maybe now I can be completely responsible for my decision to enlist in the Army!
posted by lullaby at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

"People know what they're getting into when they sign up for the military. They're not a bunch of dumb, ignorant rednecks with minds full of idealistic patriotism."

I have a lot of friends in the military, because when Iraq started, I created a community on LiveJournal for them.

I have heard from soldiers, who have said that they knew what they were signing up for. On the other hand, I have heard from those who signed up out of patriotism, out of poverty, out of the need to somehow afford an education, or to take care of their family, etc. (The latter is especially true for soldiers who re-up, as they get caught in situations where they *NEED* to keep getting that deployment pay in order to keep their family in their house. Lots have tried to work in the private sector, only to feel compelled to reenlist when they saw how bad the job market was over the past few years.

The fact is, it's all of the above.

What most of them never anticipated was what Iraq and Afghanistan would do to them as a person. Several came back wounded or busted up. One friend of mine has chronic back pain due to having to hauling gear seven days a week for two tours, even after he reported serious problems. He also has PTSD, probably related in part to all the bomb scenes he had to live through. I've seen pictures of what he had to deal with, and it was horrific.

Another friend of mine got ambushed in Fallujah, had his buddies die, lost one kidney, then the other when it couldn't take over properly... got a donor kidney, nearly died through all that, but got addicted to the pain meds after having to take them for about eight months straight, had to go through rehab, lost his fiance...

Yet another is pretty damn messed up, lost his wife, and just can't fit back in with civilian life anymore. He has problems with 4th of July fireworks, fears driving under overpasses, and just feels like an alien back in the U.S... He returned for awhile, felt incredibly isolated, got drunk and into a lot of fights... and now he's back out there, but he's clearly messed up.

The simple fact is, nobody who hasn't been there is really capable of knowing what they're getting into when they go to war. War is a horrible thing, best avoided if possible.
posted by markkraft at 9:44 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will say one other thing that I heard from another soldier I know who did two tours in Iraq, before working as a recruiter.

Recruiting is the worst. Worse than serving in Iraq. The pressure to recruit people was really high. Lots of unrealistic expectations, followed routinely by yelling and being generally disgraced if you don't make them. Never mind the fact that it's not an easy sell by any means. It eats up your whole life, and is completely unrewarding and guilt-inducing.

Basically, you're taking proud, oftentimes previously empowered, yet somewhat vulnerable veterans and putting them in the middle of a twisted Army version of a Glenngarry Glen Ross / Death of a Salesman hell... with no time off and a body count.

Thankfully, he's working as a trainer nowadays. He hated that job.
posted by markkraft at 10:19 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

"The fact is, it's all of the above. "

Well put.

Thanks to those who put their own experiences out there to provide a more balanced view.

As I said above, I hope we start getting it right and providing, at minimum, the promised support.
posted by batmonkey at 1:25 PM on January 30, 2009

“Inside the truck, the body lay undisturbed.
If Josh Barber wanted his suicide to make a statement, no one seemed to notice.”

Why should the folks at the Army Medical Center be any different than the rest of the country?
Hell, we started fucking over returning soldiers right after the country was born.
(Didn’t even pay our conscripts, plus locked them up when they came back for not paying their bills while they were gone. Oh, but yeah, it’s the troops who are the problem, not the businessmen, just tryin’ to make a buck amirite?)

“I still have such difficulty feeling sympathy at times for people who see "shoot and kill other human beings" on the job description, and sign up anyway.”

Some outstanding comments here regarding this notion. Allow me to say, I did sign up to shoot and kill other human beings. I’ve excelled at many forms of violence throughout my life. I was an excellent marksman well before I entered the service. I was supernatural when I was in the military. I’ve had several life events which convinced me that there was a need to kill certain people. I won’t share them. Suffice it to say they oriented my belief as to where I was needed, they did not change my philosophy.
Concerning that - I do not believe in the death penalty. I do not believe in killing or harming in any way someone you have already subdued. I oppose torture and inhumane treatment of any prisoners (any - foreign or domestic).
What I do believe - what I know as fact - is that there are certain moments when you have to kill in order to save innocent lives or prevent far worse things from occuring.
I’ll grant that the people who make it necessary are human beings as well, but they have put themselves in that position.
Just recently out here we had a police sniper kill a person who was holding some folks in a bank office hostage. The man had already killed one person and it was apparent he planned to kill more.
That cop was trained to kill human beings. And yet, he saved lives.
I’m being somewhat simplistic here in outline because I don’t feel it appropriate to share my personal details or experiences.

But someone has to be trained to kill people. Not because people must be killed in order to serve some goal or further some national ends (tho that’s the usual reason given).
But because there are always people who will create a situation in which it is neccessary to either kill them or capitulate to some more egregious situation.
So those people who we train to kill must be trained well and disciplined and rigorously overseen in part because killing is not something that can be done in a sloppy or haphazard manner, but mostly because those skills and that mindset have to be contained and utilized appropriately. And only when necessary.

Sometimes, yes, the political agenda abuses this sacrifice of time, effort and human condition. But that is a different matter than training to kill. Generally speaking there will always be these kinds of demands, not always to a lethal extreme, but always ‘accept this or else.’ Whether by one’s own government or a foreign government or whatever. And whether these consequences are distortions or earnest threats.
You have (say) ‘relinquish the 4th amendment, or criminals will run wild” or some such.
Typically these things are negotiable. And again, often matters of state.
At some point someone makes a demand or creates a situation which forces one’s hand - e.g. live life as a slave or die, give us your oil or die.
One has to choose whether to fight or to capitulate. Within that sphere are other events, perhaps derivative of the over-arching situation, or perhaps not - e.g. someone who hijacks a plane may be doing it because of an ongoing event (a war, occupation, etc.) or it may stand alone.

Therefore - if one chooses to fight, is it not better to have skilled technicians able to deal with such matters in an efficient manner?
It sounds somewhat glib, but if I could fly or if I had a magic ring that could reverse time or some such I would use it to prevent someone being taken hostage.
As it is, the only tools we have to address violence in immediate terms are firearms and other kinds of weapons that kill.
Essentially - we kill because we have no other option. Not merely in philosophical terms, but in very hard practical terms.

I’ll grant pacifism its full measure here and say that there are certain techniques that work. But that is a matter for society. The state, I don’t think, could use those. It’s one thing to tell someone they must kill, it’s quite another to tell them they *must* die.

I’m skipping vast amounts of information and details here, but bear with me. I cede any reasonable counterpoints to some of the softer details here, but I’m trying to cohere a larger picture.

So - given there are people and organizations (and there are) that will force these matters to lethality, given we then need people trained to deal with them - trained to kill, and tableing the issues of when, where, how, etc. - in terms of the political - and paring it down to bare necessity - they are accepting the risk of being killed in the field, yes.
But they are not accepting the risk of suicide because proper training in the use of force should have, as a component, how to difuse aggression.
You see, your focus is on ‘shoot other human beings,’ but not on the controlled aggression required to do such a thing.

You, yes you, would kill and eat another human if pushed hard enough. Anyone on the planet would. Anyone, that is, who was not innured to such things. That is, anyone who was trained against it.

So - Joe Buddhist has his meditation, other folks have their ethos’ of dying before killing, all that. But it’s the degree to which they are trained that makes sure they live up to their respective standards.
Plenty of ways to do that. Let’s just focus on martial training.

Why don’t soldiers kill someone in their unit who they fight with? Why don’t they kill their superiors who are ordering them into danger?
It’s not rational for a man to face gunfire when he himself has a firearm and all he has to do is kill the man ordering him to face it in order to leave. So what is it?
Training and discipline.
Ok, so why don’t more combat troops, when the come home, settle everyone’s hash by killing them? Guy cuts him off at a stoplight - bam, kill him. Certainly there are exceptions, some do. Why not all of them? Why doesn’t their aggression jump the tracks and light on the folks at ‘home.’
Because, again, of training and discipline.
Should be obvious where I’m going with this.

The suicides should be a very large red flag that these people are not getting the training and support they need to diffuse the aggression.
Perhaps, as Chocolate Pickle says, the demographics are just above the non-military population.
But that non-military population was not trained by the government. Nor was that population responsible for executing policy, ostensibly by the people of the country.

And allow me the flip side of that argument - suicide is aggression turned inward. It’s reasonable for someone experiencing this generalized anxiety and anger, etc, to wish to not harm others. Typically it’s empathy and the fact they do consider themselves home.
But that seems to be what’s being relied on here. I mean, it’s ok not to give them techniques to deal with being at home because hey, if they start flipping out, they’ll kill themselves.
Having been there myself, I can speak with some authority on this matter.
What saved me is the years of experience dealing with aggression I already had plus the experience many folks in my family had (lot of ex-military).

If all of that is too long, or doesn’t make sense, let me oversimplify it as much as I can - when troops come home they are supposed to become good citizens again. They leave the ‘weapon’ on the battlefield and the violence in those spaces where it was necessary. It no longer being necessary, and they no longer being its instrument, they put it down and leave it.
They’re not supposed to kill anybody anymore, even themselves.
That they do marks a failure. But then, who has any real interest in doing it right anyway? Long as they gas flows. Long as we don't have to hear about it. Long as we can hold ourselves morally or intellectually superior, we can pretend the whole thing isn't a problem.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:23 PM on January 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

my cousin went to iraq and now he's back in the u.s. and he's totally fucked.
he abuses perscription drugs, drinks waaaayy too much and just can't relax, he's always jittery like something is going to happen to him even when he's around friends and family.
it's quite sad really. the only reason he joined the army was to support his wife and kids because he couldn't find better work and now he's divorced and totally messed up.

for real, take my advice and don't ever join the army!!!
the only army i can respect are peace keeping forces, and even then, their role can sometimes get messy and complicated, look at the canadians in afghanistan as an example.
posted by mariolapinski at 5:47 PM on January 30, 2009

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