04 October 2010

U.S. Soldiers Committing Suicide: The War After the War

at Catholic Online

Do you recall President Obama’s speech last month on the Iraq war?  Vaguely?   I remember hearing some TV pundit saying that night after the speech, “The problem for Obama is that he delivered good news on a topic nobody cares about.” 

Is that true?  After so many years, are we just so weary of hearing about the war and the billions of dollars spent that we’re not interested anymore?  With all due respect, we don’t have the right to not care anymore. 

June, 2010 was an historic month for U.S. soldiers and not in a proud way.  The Army reported a record number of suicides – 32 total.  Every day during June, at least one of our soldiers took his or her own life.  That knowledge grieves me.  I hope it grieves all of us.   

Just last week the news from Fort Hood, TX was once again senseless and tragic.  It seems four soldiers took their own lives; one of them also killed his wife first, leaving their two young children orphans.

The simple fact is after 9 years of war, the Army is severely stressed.  Troops have faced multiple and extended deployments that have taken a harsh toll on soldiers and their families.  Long separations can strain even good relationships and troubled ones may crumble under the stress.  But the bottom line is there is simply no way a soldier goes off to war and returns home untouched by what he saw and experienced on the battlefield, and the hidden wounds may be the most deadly.  Too many of our heroes are coming home only to fight the war after the war – the battle for their peace of mind, their self-worth, and their lives.

(This article is not meant to be a referendum on the war.  I’m not interested in trashing President Obama or President Bush or Democrats or Republicans.  Nor am I interested in criticizing the Army.) 

The Army is well aware of the problem and they are taking it very seriously.  I recently had the opportunity to speak directly with COL Christopher Philbrick, director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force.  He readily acknowledges the extraordinary stress the troops are under and the reality that many of them need help dealing with the psychological, physical and emotional effects of a brutal war.

When I asked him about the stigma attached to behavioral and mental health needs, the reluctance of many military members to seek help for fear of harming their careers, he admitted such a stigma has been around a long time, but today’s Army is aggressively working to eliminate it.  “Is the stigma gone?  No, it is not,” COL Philbrick told me.  “Is it less prevalent than in the past?  Yes, it is.”

New standards being implemented across the board call for every soldier of every rank to receive a series of behavioral health consults before deployment, during deployment, and upon returning home.  The Army is even taking advantage of Skype technology to provide long-distance help to soldiers – even those in theater – when counselors are not immediately available in person.

I asked him if there was one message he’d like to communicate loud and clear to every soldier, no matter their rank or circumstances, and he replied without hesitation, “Raising your hand and asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness.  The days where help could not be found are over.  You are not alone, and there is hope and help.  You can get better.”

COL Philbrick directed me to a new video recently released and posted on the Army’s suicide prevention website, called “Shoulder to Shoulder: I Will Never Quit On Life.”  I’ve watched the entire video and I share COL Philbrick’s hope that it will be widely viewed and utilized to reach soldiers who need to know that they’re not broken or weak or unwanted – they can heal and their lives can be good again.

I’m very glad to hear about what the Army is doing to take care of its soldiers, but is that the end of the story?   What about the rest of us?  What about the community of faith?  Can we provide more than just moral and patriotic support, more than care packages?  Indeed, we can. 

After 9 long years, human nature dictates that war-fatigue easily takes over and if we do not have a loved one serving, the battle can seem very far from us and impersonal.  It’s easy to put it out of our minds.  It’s gone on for so long now that it just blends into the background of our daily lives.

(Again, this is not a referendum on the war!  The point of this discussion is to rally the troops – by that I mean the Prayer Warriors.)

May I urgently beg you to bring it back to the forefront?  Bring it back to your private prayer times and bring it back to your parish’s mass intentions if it has been absent lately.  

We need to pray for our heroes’ protection against depression and the spirit of suicide and hopelessness.  Even after they have returned home to “normal life,” Satan is still working to destroy them through despair, guilt, anger, grief, and fear.  Let us do what we are uniquely equipped to do and carry them to Jesus, imploring the intercession of the angels and saints.   We owe them that.

Let the rest of the world read this and scoff and say, “How stupid and meaningless!”  I don’t care.  We know the reality of the spiritual realm; we know the truth of things unseen.  It’s not a battle against flesh and blood; it isn’t fought with rifles or bombs.  It is fought on our knees with persistence and faith. 

October is the month of the Rosary – what better way to pray for our heroes than to place them in Mary’s arms.  Offer your rosary for them.  If your parish prays a communal rosary, offer it for them.  Remember them when you spend time in Adoration.  Pray the chaplet of St. Michael for them.  Get specific and pray that our heroes’ hearts and minds will be kept safe from suicide and despair, fear, hate, guilt, anger and every other device of the enemy.  Pray that the families waiting at home will remain strong and faithful.

Look around you and see the soldiers in your community, in your church and pay attention.  It may sound surprising, but soldiers who’ve been there say that when someone actually asked them whether they were thinking of hurting or killing themselves, they were honest about it.  If you think there’s a soldier or family in your midst who needs help, be brave enough to say something.  You might save a life. 

Most of all, please keep praying.  Do battle for our troops as they fight the war after the war. 

For more information and resources, go to http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/


GrandmaK said...

Amazing video...Lessons there not just for military personnel but all of us...Know how hard it was for those returning from Vietnam. Know how it was for us when Ron was on orders there...Thank you for posting this! Cathy

Brian said...

I will offer all my rosaries this October for all the men and women serving our country - keeping all of us safe - and also for those who come home suffering from the effects of war.

God bless you - thank you for this important post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this -- I don't know anyone in the military, but I do support our troops (Canadian & US). Here in Montreal this week an anti-war video and demonstration were held by a local womens' group. Both video and demo were totally inane, and widely criticized in both French and English by the public. Our soldiers definitely need support, and the Rosary, Our Lady's secret weapon, is a powerful means of protection for troops and civilians alike.

Patricia Gonzalez

Owner of Homeschool Faith and Family Life Website said...

As the wife of a Gulf War Vet, the sister of a Vietnam Vet, and the friend of several young, brave, men currently serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Japan, I THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.

Strand Of Pearls Woman said...

I was unable to read your entire post at this point because of the tears in my eyes and the very real pain in my heart. My husband was active duty for the first five years of our marriage, and when he returned from his deployment, he returned a different person. He has been home for five years now, and only now has he been seeking the help that he has needed to heal from this, as well as other scars he has shouldered. Pray for the soldiers returning, and pray for patience and strength for their families as well.

Thank you so much for sending a prayer request out. This one struck close to home.



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