The U.S. Army Can't Stop Soldiers From Killing Themselves

The military takes enormous precautions to protect the troops. But it hasn't been able to take on the leading cause of their death: suicide.

The military takes enormous precautions to protect the troops. But it hasn't been able to take on the leading cause of their death: suicide.

Matt and Cheryl Ecker hold a photo of their son, Army veteran Michael Ecker, who shot himself in the head in the family's Ohio backyard. (Reuters)

Any former soldier will tell you that the U.S. Army sometimes goes to rather ridiculous extremes to keep the troops safe. In Kuwait, soldiers are required to wear yellow reflective belts at all times and junior soldiers are not allowed to go anywhere alone. In Iraq, some units require wearing ballistic protective eyewear at all times, even on camp on the way to the latrine. In Germany, the Army forbade soldiers to ride motorcycles because three soldiers died in accidents there. Every Friday, soldiers receive "safety briefs," and on long weekends they must have their personal vehicles checked for safety hazards by their leadership.

But while the Army takes great care not to lose soldiers to injury or accidental death, it has been unable to protect the troops against what is currently the leading cause of their death: suicide. The Army needs to make a cultural change to combat this problem.

This summer, the Army reported that active-duty suicides had reached a record high: 26 in the month of July alone. Last year at exactly the same time, I wrote that July 2011 recorded the most Army-wide suicides ever with 32 (22 of whom were active duty). In June 2010, 31 soldiers committed suicide (21 of them active duty). These numbers are the equivalent of an entire platoon. In most months, more soldiers are lost to suicide than are killed in combat. Additionally, an average of 18 veterans per day commits suicide. That is 540 per month; a battalion of veterans lost to suicide each month.

Compare the attention given when only 10 soldiers die in a single combat action. Imagine the attention and national sorrow if the Army lost an entire battalion, something that hasn't happened since Vietnam. In reality, it is happening every month.

The big question is what should be done to combat this epidemic. The Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs recognize its severity, and recognition is the first step toward addressing it. The next step must be a change in the Army culture. This is not a problem that can be solved with a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation in the post chapel, accompanied by a brochure with a hotline number. Tackling this problem will require leaders at all levels to get out from behind their rank and military instruction manuals and talk about something that is hard for tough guys to talk about: how to support each other emotionally. Any leader who cannot or won't do this shouldn't be in a leadership role.

America today is in the enviable position of being able to fight complex conflicts on several fronts thousands of miles away without causing many bumps in the road back home. There has been no rationing of goods and no draft to support our last decade spent at war. Only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population has served in the active military during this time, and we have had an all-volunteer military for decades. Unless Americans have a friend or family member serving, most see the war only in the media and can easily blot it out of their lives if they like.

Despite genuine support and respect for the troops, there are still many who feel they already get too much "handed to them." One still comes across comments, even among some veterans, that the military is "just a job" that soldiers are paid well to do, and that there are other equally valuable vocations out there that are equally dangerous. These opinions are often held or echoed by people who never served a day in uniform themselves.

What does this have to do with the suicide problem? No one else understands what soldiers go through except other soldiers. There is no way they can. If military leaders, soldiers, and veterans do not or will not support each other, no one else will. To put it bluntly, only good Army leadership and fellow soldiers can solve this problem because no one else can identify with their experience.

Leaders have to build a relationship with their soldiers like big brothers or father figures, not just bosses.

It's true that many of our soldiers come from homes with low income or a poor family structure, but there are just as many who come from tight-knit middle-class backgrounds. Many have their own families at home, but there are just as many single soldiers whose family circle is the guys in the barracks. In the Army, you work hard and play hard. Bi-annual year-long deployments alternate with month-long field training exercises. The military also has a problem with alcoholism and domestic abuse, which can result when the pressure gets to be too much. Regardless of soldiers' backgrounds, the terrible things they see in combat are stuck in their heads forever.

If you listen to veterans of an earlier generation, some will berate troops that left after serving four or eight years and accuse them of not "hacking it." Many of them believe that all this talk of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury is garbage; they just called it "shell shock" back in their day and moved on. This bitter talk is not helpful, and it re-enforces the avoidance of the suicide problem. As evidenced by the number of suicides among old as well as young veterans, this is a problem for the whole community.

For Army culture to begin to really address the problem of suicide, it needs to give the matter serious attention at all levels of leadership education, both for commissioned and noncommissioned officers. The Army already has a manual on what is required of leaders: FM 6-22. The manual contains sections on empathy, interpersonal tact, and communication, along with building teamwork and esprit de corps. It is already a requirement of good Army leadership to be able interface with soldiers in a way that supports and builds them up from a mental and emotional perspective. Any soldier unable or unwilling to do this should not be a leader.

The Army also already has in place a counseling system whereby every individual soldier has a leader directly responsible for him or her. This leader is required to conduct and document the session individually. Unfortunately, this requirement has become so regimented and regulated by senior leaders that there is almost no element of individual choice or personal relationship left in it. The fast operational tempo of the job means that leaders lack the time to sit down with their soldiers and talk to them outside the constraints of "Task, Condition, Standards."

Every Thursday morning Army-wide used to be set aside as "Sergeant's time," where first-line leaders trained their troops on soldiering tasks. But this concept also suffered from micromanagement by senior leadership, who were concerned that the time wasn't being used properly. The Army has to give to leaders at all levels sufficient and consistent time to speak with their subordinates on a small-group or individual basis. It is a necessity for combatting this problem and is in keeping with what is already required of good Army leadership.

The concept that needs to be gotten across is that the Army is a family and all members need mutual support for it to work well. There is no equipment or manual that can build this sense of togetherness. There is no outside help that is going to cultivate it. Leaders have to build a relationship with their soldiers like big brothers or father figures, not just bosses. They have to talk about the tough times their soldiers will face before, during, and after combat tours. They have to talk about the fact that everyone is going to have difficulty dealing with what they experience, no matter what they might say. A soldier troubled by his experience in combat is normal. A soldier who isn't the slightest bit troubled by the things he has seen is not.

Leaders also have to take the time to look at their own leadership style and adapt it to the present situation. Strict discipline may be the right approach at some times, but taking a gentler tone may be more suitable at others. Making these distinctions is a crucial part of leadership.

Senior officers should also give junior leaders room to exercise their own judgment. Junior noncommissioned officers are on the frontlines and are more in touch with individual soldiers. Yet they are overworked and are often not given the space or time to develop the type of individual, mutually open relationships needed to combat the suicide problem. Once they are thrown into combat with soldiers, they have to quickly develop that relationship or they'll fail. When junior leaders are unable to figure out how to best motivate their soldiers, they take the wrong approach, especially in grinding, high-stress combat. That can lead to the feelings of sorrow and hopelessness that may eventually result in suicide.

Senior noncommissioned officers also have a role. They have to look out for their own junior NCOs in the same manner. Experienced senior NCOs also often have a broader overview of the situation, and from that vantage point, they may be able to pick up on signs that junior leaders can miss in the fray. They also have the advantage of often being a little older than junior soldiers and can more easily fill a "fatherly" role. Their rank also allows them more latitude in taking steps to address individual issues.

Sergeant majors and first sergeants can be the first focal points for this change in Army culture. As the most senior of NCOs, their mission is to provide for the welfare of the troops under them while officers focus on planning and leading military missions and requirements. These senior NCOs are the most respected in the Army. Getting these leaders -- who are often seen as the toughest guys around -- to talk about emotional support, look for the signs and symptoms of suicide, and end the stigma against seeking help can have a tremendous impact on addressing suicide.

Officers are more removed from dealings with individual soldiers, but mission success depends upon unit cohesion. Officers can make it clear that suicide is a serious problem. The impact of a soldier's suicide on his unit as a whole is devastating. Shifting the blame to the victim stands in the way of addressing the problem. Officers also must check on one another and their subordinates and constantly evaluate their own leadership style to ensure it fits properly with the current situation.

There are bad leaders in the Army. Every soldier has had at least one. They come in all different ranks and types. But soldiers and veterans are being lost every day to suicide--far too many to not take this problem seriously. Army leaders who are dismissive about the issue are failing as leaders. In the words of General Colin Powell, "The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership."