My husband and I have served a combined 37 years in the United States Military. During that time, we both saw and felt the loss of brothers and sisters in arms. Losing one of your own in war is bad enough, but losing one to suicide is exponentially worse.
Between the two of us, we have seen and known a total of six suicides. Just over a year after my retirement, I know a fellow veteran who could not handle life outside of uniform and chose to end it prematurely. Unfortunately, the decades-long scourge of military and veteran suicide has yet to be adequately answered. For those of us who have served over the past two decades, the endless cycle of ineffective methods to curb this dark trend is just a checkbox that does nothing to save the lives of those who have given so much.
A recent report commissioned by the Pentagon has some suggestions for reducing the suicide rate of those younger soldiers, but are these recommendations anything new? Are they effective? Let’s take a look.
Note, the concern here is not with military suicides, but with how those suicides are committed. Why is that? Because it’s not about suicides, it’s about using them as an emotional vehicle to advocate for control. https://t.co/4ivwB7fnt8
— AlofsActual (@AlofsActual) February 27, 2023
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Bandage at best
The Department of Defense created the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) in 2020. SPRIRC’s latest report has some eyebrow-raising suggestions for the Pentagon, including “On DOD property, raise the minimum age to purchase firearms and ammunition to 25. years.”
Currently, military members and veterans can buy firearms on base through so-called base exchanges, at places like Cabela’s where the items are often cheaper than off base. The idea here is that if you want to buy a gun or ammunition on base, you must be 25 years or older, which is different from the rule of the land elsewhere.
Additionally, the report recommends implementing a “7-day waiting period for any firearm purchased on DOD property” and a “4-day waiting period for ammunition purchases on DOD property.” Data shows that two-thirds of active duty members and veterans commit suicide with firearms.
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Committee member and safety expert Craig Bryan explains the purpose of these recommendations, saying they are “taking steps to slow down convenient access to the most lethal means, such as firearms.” But do these constitutionally questionable best practices get at the root cause of suicide in the military or just try to kick the inevitable can down the road?
About 3/4 of military suicides involve a firearm. We recommend DoD establish firearm safety training requirements, as they do for motorcycle safety. We also offer a series of recommendations regarding the sale and storage of privately owned firearms on installations.
— Rajeev Ramchand (@RRamchand) February 25, 2023
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Deeper than entry
To the committee’s credit, they acknowledge the complexity of the issue, “In this report, SPRIRC emphasized the need for a multi-pronged approach to effectively prevent and respond to suicide, as deaths by suicide among service members are complex; So simple or singular strategies don’t work.”
As someone who has been suicidal several times while in uniform, as a random bystander whose new roommate decided to end their life, as a friend whose colleague made the same choice, and as a leader in their unit who dealt with it, I can tell you that there is no easy way to prevent or respond to this trend.
The reasons service members and veterans choose to end their lives range from financial problems, relationship problems, overwork, sexual assault and harassment. In some instances, there are no warning signs or a clear reason for the act, I can assure you it acts like a wrecking ball for the family but like a magnitude nine earthquake hitting the unit.
Some of you who have never served may come as a surprise to some of you who have never served. As counselor Kayla Arrestivo explains, “Any family I talk to that has lost a service member to suicide always has some story about how their loved one is struggling with really toxic leadership.”
As a leader, I am always compelled to hold back those troops who break the law or are not cut in service for fear of my commanding officer who may choose to take their own lives if we take any action. That usually means putting more work into the forces that follow the rules and work harder.
The effect on my friend, the pressure of carrying the burden of her own work with two others, was unbearable for her, and the world was less for it. On the flip side, many of us, myself included, are on the receiving end of high-level ‘leaders’ in their ranks who participate in workplace bullying that often blurs the lines.
Is anything being done to address the reasons why young heroes take their own lives?
I think we would see less suicides in the military if we had access to real therapists. Not just some dude advising me to buy a therapy workbook from Amazon. https://t.co/PKgDjQPlAk
— Stripping Snorlax (@strippingsnorlax) February 26, 2023
RELATED: Record-breaking defense budget does nothing to help soldiers who still can’t afford enough to eat
The suggestions I’ve touched on sound an awful lot like gun control, and many are wondering why we restrict the constitutional rights of service members who actively defend and advocate for the same rights the rest of us have. Another suggestion that I think is more alarming is for the DOD to “develop a national database to record the serial numbers of firearms purchased on DOD property.”
A gun registry where some of these toxic leaders can access and carte blanche make decisions about members’ access to their legally purchased firearms doesn’t sound like a good idea to me; If anything, I think this opens up the possibility of more problems versus solutions. Our country has a mental health problem and gun control will not solve it.
Mr. Brian says, “Half of all military suicides are among 17- to 25-year-olds.” In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24.
Basically, we’re hiring and enlisting Americans who are already hurting and expecting them to be able to work in an environment that pushes you to your limits through other challenges like the inability to afford groceries. There is no business with the rank they do, and better living conditions. Then, if you survive your time in uniform, you will become a veteran.
Yesterday: The Pentagon said it would implement new recommendations to prevent suicide in the military. pic.twitter.com/dTkdki5j9A
— The Hill (@TheHill) February 25, 2023
1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans. We need to take better care of our service members, which means having uncomfortable conversations about how we treat Americans, in uniform, and veterans.
America is hurting, and because of that, our best are hurting too. Gun control is not the answer; National soul-searching will be good.
To those I lost to suicide, I think of you every day, the world was better off with you and we should have done more for you.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
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