Of soldiers and suicide

Number of confirmed suicides in the U.S. Army in 2006: 102. Since accurate record keeping began in ’81, the numbers have never been as high.

Kelsey Kudak

I was thumbing through this month’s Harper’s to read the David Foster Wallace piece when I detoured through the Harper’s Index and spotted a few noteworthy statistics among the usual collage (e.g., 79 percent of 152,000 Greenpeace votes wished to name a humpback whale in the South Pacific, “Mr. Splashy Pants.” Or perhaps more appropriate for the holiday: The number of states where a court has held that women must return engagement rings if the wedding doesn’t happen: 18).

Juxtaposing these was the “chance that an Iraq war veteran who has served two or more tours now has post-traumatic stress disorder: 1 in 4.” And lines beneath this read: “Number of confirmed suicides in the U.S. Army in 2006: 102.”

Harper’s index goes on to cite that since accurate record keeping began in 1981, the numbers have never been as high.

On Tuesday, The Associated Press exclusively published government data on the suicide rates of the National Guard and Reserve troops who have left the army. From 2001-2005, these troops comprised 53 percent of the suicides in that time period. Because the leaders of the military have leaned so heavily on the Guard and Reserves in these last years, many individuals have done several tours away from home – often removing them from their families and careers for 18 months at a time.

But when troops do come home, they are expected to carry on with their lives as if they had never left and the war does not exist. Let’s face it: while much of the general population may oppose Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an event that occurs outside of our world. Like poverty and deficient education in Africa or other countries, it’s that thing that’s happening somewhere else. Unless we are witnesses, we remain unmoved. Unless our relationships are personally invested, we often let an event run its course. But if you’ve ever spent a semester abroad or a summer in the wilderness, you may have begun to understand a soldier’s dissociation from the rest of our nation upon his or her return to the states. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America, notes that soldiers are “literally in Baghdad one week and in Brooklyn the next,” and that “a more long term, comprehensive approach is needed, especially in the first six months a soldier is home.”

In November, President George W. Bush signed the Suicide Prevention Act that directed the Veterans Administration to improve the mental health training of its staff and to heighten the levels of screening and treatment of illnesses like PTSD and Depression. As part of the act, the administration created its first suicide hotline last year, and according to the article from The Associated Press, one in five veterans have visited a Veterans Administration facility. The trouble is getting suicidal veterans to utilize the line.

The government’s study fails to involve suicide that occurs in war zones or troops who remain in the military after returning home. What, then, of those who remain deployed? Those numbers are also rising.

Chris Scheuerman, a retired master sergeant, spoke of his son Jason’s suicide on National Public Radio last month. The event happened while Jason was deployed in Iraq; Chris was told his son had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but the army was unwilling to provide details of the incident. Chris was forced to file requests for the Freedom of Information Act for two years, until called upon his local congressman for help.

In the documents he finally received, he discovered that his son had been feeling suicidal for months before his death. Jason had seen both a chaplain and a military psychologist; both had ruled Jason unhealthy. The Army chaplain had noted he was obsessed with suicide, but the psychologist ruled that he was capable of “feigning illness in order to manipulate his command.” Less than six months later, he used his firearm to kill himself.

Jason Scheuerman was 19. According to a publication on January 31 on the Army Web site, most of the suicides that occur are among the youngest of the soldiers deployed: 18-24 year olds. The Army rates reflect those of the Guard and Reserves with a 17.3 percent increase per 100,000 troops last year.

Ironically, the election buzz doesn’t seem to be focusing on the war. In December, the Iraq war wasn’t even on the agenda for the final Democratic and Republican debates sponsored by The Des Moines Register. Perhaps because the American public has something new on which to focus in the election, this new focus is usurping trends of war discussion in these last years. But we cannot forget the absent individuals and their mourning families.

Stressed relationships and access to loaded firearms are two of the largest factors in suicides. Our troops are tired; we cannot simply bring them home, change their oil and expect them to run as if they are brand new vehicles. As they remain in Iraq, they must be made aware our support, regardless of our political standings. We must not allow these individuals to merely exist in another part of the world while we continue our lives here. It was not their decision to begin the war in 2001, nor is it their choice to end it.

Of this, Chris Scheuerman said, “It is horrible that we lost the soldiers we have to. It is a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn’t have.”

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]