I joined the Army as a chaplain as an adventure into the next chapter in my life – not that I wasn’t already doing something that was different as a clergy person serving Protestant congregations in England. So began an adventure that took me to Italy, North Carolina, Haiti, Germany, Macedonia, Iraq, Georgia, California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia so far. My assignments in Haiti and California have probably been the most rewarding assignments because in these assignments above all others, I felt that I was making a difference in the lives of soldiers and their families as well as in the lives of the local population. In Haiti, I was involved in a Joint Services assignment and worked with numerous non-governmental agencies attempting to bring some level of relief from the severe poverty that continues to plague that island country. In California, I was the Family Life Chaplain, providing counseling services and marriage enrichment programs to soldiers and families many of whom had been deployed and were struggling with reintegrating after long periods of being apart; others were struggling with the general pressure of military life in a high tempo operations environment that impacted both the soldier and their families. I have always felt that the chaplain, above all of the other helping services available to the soldier and his/her family, brings a human face to the institution of the military. The chaplain is unique in his/her place within the system in that he/she has direct access to the commander as well as to the most junior soldier in the unit. He/she lives and works in the same environment as any other soldier. A good chaplain is the trusted confidant of the unit who assists everyone regardless of their religious affiliation, or lack of religious affiliation, to live the Army values, to feel good about what they do as soldiers, and to stand with the soldier through good and bad times.

One of the outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the fact that the Army is paying much more attention to the human dimension of the soldier. Programs that are conducted by people in positions like myself are highly valued throughout the commands. Some of the most senior leaders are recognizing that the Army is off balance due to the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equipment is wearing out and soldiers are tired because there is little or no time for reset before the next mission begins. The Army, as an institution, is slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that that when a soldier breaks down, “fixing” that soldier can be a very complex and lengthy process that is very unpredictable in nature and outcome. Personnel issues such as length of assignments and the length of dwell time between deployments are being addressed at the most senior levels of personnel management. The Army has addressed quality of life issues such as salaries, better housing, and improved community services. More social services, mental health services, and chaplain services are available to the military community. In many ways, the quality of life in the Army has never been better. And yet the Army is facing the highest suicide rates since Vietnam. For every suicide and suspected suicide, a formal investigation is conducted to determine as nearly as possible the reasons why the individual chose suicide over life. Page 30 of the Army Suicide Event Report (ASER): Calendar year 2007 summarizes the findings on suicide for that year as follows:

“Suicide behaviors were most common for young, Caucasian, unmarried, junior enlisted Soldiers. Attempts and completions were further differentiated from each other by age, gender, and rank, with younger, lower-enlisted female Soldiers overrepresented for suicide attempts compared to completions. Firearms were the most common method for completed suicide, and overdoses and cutting were the most common methods of self-harm not resulting in death. The majority of events occurred in a garrison duty environment, although almost a third of completed suicides occurred in a deployed environment. It was not uncommon for individuals to have had prior self-injurious events, past psychiatric diagnoses, and/or prior outpatient or other mental health care, especially for Soldiers with suicide attempts. Most completed suicides (56%) did not have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder reported. The most frequently reported stressors included failed or failing relationships (especially intimate/spousal), legal problems, work-related problems, and excessive debt.”

Additionally, isolation has been demonstrated to be a major factor in the incidence of suicide. The Army prides itself as an institution in looking after its members – the no one left behind theme. The issue of suicide is no different. To lose any soldier or family member to suicide is to lose one too many individual. So, the Army has instituted a comprehensive suicide awareness/prevention program that is addressing these issues as leader issues throughout the organization. The program calls leaders and peers to be aware of the signs of suicide and to be aware when peers and subordinates are exhibiting the signs of suicide – “to never leave a fallen comrade.” The Army hasn’t found the “silver bullet” that provides a comprehensive solution for eradicating the occurrence of suicide from its ranks, but the consciousness of the system is aware of the problems; the is the beginning of working toward solutions – solutions that hopefully will save lives.