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Thread: Army Chaplain, the human dimension of the soldier, and suicide

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    Default Army Chaplain, the human dimension of the soldier, and suicide

    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.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammie Crews View Post
    ... Most completed suicides (56%) did not have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder reported... Additionally, isolation has been demonstrated to be a major factor in the incidence of suicide... 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...
    Consider these two situations...
    1) A squad/crew/fire team is composed of a mixture of married and single Soldiers, some of whom are fresh out of high school and others who are ten or so years older
    2) A squad/crew/fire team is composed largely of Soldiers who share commonalities in their age and marital status.

    My suspicion is that, in the first scenario, the likelihood of a Soldier identifying and reporting a sign of suicide in one of his peers is far less likely than in the second scenario. Perhaps ethnicity could also play a (smaller) factor. However, if my suspicion is correct, I wonder if it makes sense to try to man teams in that manner. A team of single 19-year-olds (led by a Sergeant, of course) and a team of married 28-year-olds, rather than a mixture of each. Would this be more or less effective in combat? Would it sacrifice effectiveness for the sake of post-deployment suicide prevention? Have no effect at home or on deployment? It crossed my mind more than once. Not sure if anyone has looked into it.

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    Council Member ODB's Avatar
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    Default Many thoughts

    Will try to articulate on here the best I can.

    1. Is this a product of the changes in society and the Army culture. The way everything has gone politically correct, participation ribbons, etc... A lot of soldiers today do not know how to cope with the stresses put upon them? The change in Army culture that has reduce many of the stresses most of us older soldiers endured that made us stronger, mentally and physically. How does this relate?

    2. Is this a product of lowering the entry standards into the Army?

    3. Another way the Army culture has changed is in cohesion. Not on a professional level, but a personal level. Some years ago when in the Infantry, on Friday and Saturday nights we basically went out as a Company sized element. Everyone living in the barracks went out together, and at minimum a Platoon size. We all knew each other on and off duty. Over the years this has dwindled drastically into clicks of 3-4 soldiers.

    4. Another possibility is as leaders get younger and younger through mandatory promotions, how many have the life experience and maturity to deal with their soldiers problems or to identify them? The Army training video showed this exact issue. The SL telling him to pull his weight, that he wasn't depressed and basically needed to get his sh*t together.

    5. What role does a zero defect environment play?

    There is an infinite number of variables to take into account.

    IMO after sitting through the mandatory suicide training, I came away with a mixed review. Probably one of the better products the Army has produced in some time. The things missing was the teaching point of how to deal with issues, especially those back home. Many leaders and soldiers learn those things only after having dealt with it before.

    Through experience I can attest to ones culture being a factor. 1st generation citizen fails a difficult course, comes back gets a DUI, hasn't been with the unit long, thinks his life is over, commits suicide over the weekend.
    ODB

    Exchange with an Iraqi soldier during FID:

    Why did you not clear your corner?

    Because we are on a base and it is secure.

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    Council Member CR6's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Schmedlap View Post
    My suspicion is that, in the first scenario, the likelihood of a Soldier identifying and reporting a sign of suicide in one of his peers is far less likely than in the second scenario.
    I respect your insights and operational experience Schmedlap, but does this suspicion have an empirical basis beyond instinct? Did cohesion at the squad and platoon level develop along commonalities of age and marital situation? If so, did the shared experience of combat mitigate this over time?
    "Law cannot limit what physics makes possible." Humanitarian Apsects of Airpower (papers of Frederick L. Anderson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University)

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    We recently lost a Soldier to suicide, so I feel a little bit compelled to take a stab...

    Quote Originally Posted by ODB View Post
    1. Is this a product of the changes in society and the Army culture. The way everything has gone politically correct, participation ribbons, etc... A lot of soldiers today do not know how to cope with the stresses put upon them? The change in Army culture that has reduce many of the stresses most of us older soldiers endured that made us stronger, mentally and physically. How does this relate?
    IMO, part of the reason why the suicide rate has increased is a head on colision between the two.

    The Army's expectations (the things you refer to as making us stronger, mentally and physically) are still much higher than the expectations of Society. They don't understand how to cope because as a society, we have decided that "cope" is not a method (pun intended). We like to have answers - that might be a pill, a court settlement, getting all your news in 30 mintues - whatever.

    Then you have the Army where you have to decide how to "cope" with your issues for as long as your contract states. If you don't like waking up at 0630 and doing PT, there is no pill, no therapy, no note from mom that will make it go away.

    Young people who have been raised in that kind of environment aren't equipped with the skills necessary to deal with issues over a long period of time and that's the genisis.


    2. Is this a product of lowering the entry standards into the Army?
    Yes it is a product of lowering entry standards, but the Army has to lower its standards because the pool of qualified applicants has shrunk.

    Its easy for people like me to blame recruiters and TRADOC for not doing their job, but the reality is that if we don't adjust our sight picture, the entire volunteer military concept is in jeopardy.

    3. Another way the Army culture has changed is in cohesion. Not on a professional level, but a personal level. Some years ago when in the Infantry, on Friday and Saturday nights we basically went out as a Company sized element. Everyone living in the barracks went out together, and at minimum a Platoon size. We all knew each other on and off duty. Over the years this has dwindled drastically into clicks of 3-4 soldiers.
    IMO, this is a direct result of many of the ways the military decided to react to the string of sex scandles in the 90s.

    Fortuniatly, the boat seems to finally be turning on this with the new ACE program which *gasp* emphasizes personal responsibility and encrouages Soldiers to become involved to prevent incidents from happening.

    4. Another possibility is as leaders get younger and younger through mandatory promotions, how many have the life experience and maturity to deal with their soldiers problems or to identify them? The Army training video showed this exact issue. The SL telling him to pull his weight, that he wasn't depressed and basically needed to get his sh*t together.
    This one I'm not so sure about. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I feel that its not the amount of time, its the quality of time.

    I would trust the judgment of an E-5 with four years and two tours in Iraq when it comes to identifying PTSD/suicide/etc over the opinion of an E-7 with 15 years and limited experience.

    I think a lot of the disconnect is between those battle buddy/team leader folks who are saying "hey something is wrong even if I don't know what it is" and the squad leader /PSG types who are saying "oh suck it up, I don't want to deal with it".

    5. What role does a zero defect environment play?
    This is the big one. Zero defect is alive and well and anyone who says otherwise is full of it.

    And it starts at the top. The day Petraeus comes out and says "You're goddamn right I have trouble sleeping at night after being shot, having a full page add in USAToday saying I'm a traitor, and running Iraq for seven years." instead of challenging Soldiers to push up contests will be a great leap forward.

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    I have just read through the postings quickly and have not had time to think about them. But, I think that the culture out of which a lot of young people come is instant everything. Many children have grown up in an environment where they are never told "no." Maybe their parents are never home because it is a single parent household or both parents are working to try to keep up with all the commitments. The early attachments that are necessary for human development and for healthy survival just don't happen. A crisis comes, and the individual doesn't have the coping skills to handle it; suicide becomes a viable option. I think this only one of many aspects. Certainly, the "army culture" is less than perfect and the perspective on is as as different as the number of soldiers in it. There are multiple ways of attacking the problem of suicide. I think awareness and converations about the topic are a very important starting point. I hope this thread will continue as a dialogue because I am very interested in working toward better solutions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by CR6 View Post
    ... does this suspicion have an empirical basis beyond instinct?
    The hypothesis is derived from instinct. I'm not sure if empirical analysis would confirm it.
    Quote Originally Posted by CR6 View Post
    Did cohesion at the squad and platoon level develop along commonalities of age and marital situation? If so, did the shared experience of combat mitigate this over time?
    My impression is that cohesion developed along commonalities in garrison. Once deployed and the small unit members were watching one another's backs and relying upon one another on tactical missions and living 3 feet from one another when back at the patrol base, then the commonalities became less important - perhaps unimportant. Once the unit redeployed, the cohesion primarily shifted back to age/marital status. Again, just my impression.

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    Council Member 120mm's Avatar
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    Personally - I'm getting sick and tired about all the hand wringing, mandatory training, and force-fed info about suicide.

    Especially since the folks who push it are a combination of the perpetually hyper-sensitive weepy types, and the risk averse PC - bull#### types who push it not because they give a crap, but because suicide in their unit would make THEM look bad.

    We will never win a war because we have a low suicide rate. Or high suicide awareness, whatever the hell that is.

    I think this issue is overplayed. Way overplayed. And stuff your "but every life is precious!!!!" crap. Frankly, to me, suicide is the ultimate act of self-centeredness.

    And suicide is a symptom, not a cause. But by consistently treating the symptom, we can receive absolution for not solving the cause.

    Suicide awareness has been so completely over-sold that it has reached the level where it has become background noise, and frankly, just another training distraction, imo.

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    Quote Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
    We will never win a war because we have a low suicide rate. Or high suicide awareness, whatever the hell that is.
    There have been a whole lot of things that I did as a leader, not because it was essential to winning a war, but because it was simply the right thing to do. Taking care of Soldiers who got their limbs blown off and checking up on them even after they separated comes to mind. They'll never help us win another war - they can't even serve - but so what?

    Quote Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
    Frankly, to me, suicide is the ultimate act of self-centeredness.
    Again, so what?

    Quote Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
    And suicide is a symptom, not a cause. But by consistently treating the symptom, we can receive absolution for not solving the cause.
    Suicide is the act of killing one's self. I don't think there is any attempt to treat people who exhibit the "symptom" of being dead. We generally treat those people by burying them.

    Quote Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
    Suicide awareness has been so completely over-sold that it has reached the level where it has become background noise, and frankly, just another training distraction, imo.
    I would have agreed with that, prior to leaving the Army. But once I left I noticed some important differences between civilians and Soldiers in terms of suicide. For example, I never heard a Soldier say anything that includes the phrase "kill myself" or something similar. I hear it almost everyday now. Law students are notorious for self-pity; for thinking that their easy lives are tough because they have to read stuff and go to class. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard them say something along the lines of, "this writing assignment is a nightmare - I just want to kill myself." If a Soldier were to say something like that, he'd have his chain of command and perhaps a Chaplain asking what the problem is. And for good reason. A Soldier's life actually is sometimes stressful.

    If this suicide awareness stuff were implemented in junior high schools, then I would agree with you - it would be a lot of time and energy for a relatively small problem that has little chance of being solved. But in the Army, we know who the most likely people are to kill themselves, what the warning signs are, and how to intervene. Is it so terrible to make sure people are aware of those things?

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    Default The middle ground

    Hi Tammie, thank you for your contribution.

    120mm/Schmedlap- I believe that there maybe a common middle ground within your opposing views. I'll see if I can articulate.

    Quote Originally Posted by Schmedlap View Post
    I would have agreed with that, prior to leaving the Army. But once I left I noticed some important differences between civilians and Soldiers in terms of suicide. For example, I never heard a Soldier say anything that includes the phrase "kill myself" or something similar. I hear it almost everyday now. Law students are notorious for self-pity; for thinking that their easy lives are tough because they have to read stuff and go to class.
    Schmedlap precisely describes the distinction between civilian and military thought; however, psychologists would suggest that both mentalities are potentially unnerving and unbalancing. They use the example of the victim versus the survivor. The victim is helpless to his/her circumstance. The survivor is determined to make it right. Neither one is healthy.

    I will concentrate on the soldier or survivor mentality.

    Back in high school football, we learned early on the difference between being hurt and injured. If you were hurt, you could still play. If you were injured, then you could not play. The Army breeds a similar mentality- suck it up. Every solution is a measure of controlling your world. Pain is good. Back at Bragg, the remedy for overcoming soreness after a 10 mile run was to run a fast five mile.

    The survivor mentality can lead to unrealistic expectations in a traumatic environment- particularly war, buddies dying, etc.. One is indoctrinated to control one's environment. How does one cope when obstacles/realities are outside of one's control? I believe this is the crux of many combat stress related problems we're seeing today. In treatment for TBI, I observed many a Vietnam veteran who spent forty years sucking it up. Instead of commiting suicide, they thrust themselves into work to compensate for their perceived difficiencies.

    I've given some thought as to why the suicide rate is so high in the recruiting field. I think the answer lies in this scenario. Dude redeploys after 2-3 tours. He has a struggling marraige, he is grieving the loss of his fallen, and he is trying to understand/validate the nature of the world that he lives in. Plus, he maybe trying to figure out where his twenties or thirties went and what the hell happened to his country while he was gone.

    He receives orders for recruiting duty- "a break" from the line. The family packs up, and they move to Houston, Phoenix, or whereever. Expectations are high for quality family time and reconciliation.

    Instead, he begins working 13-14 hour days with unrealistic goals of enlistment quotas. He feels like a failure when he cannot coerce/convince young people to volunteer to serve. He didn't really say goodbye to his unit, and now he is left without his buddies. His wife is frustrated because he is never around.

    He begins to isolate, compartmentalizing his feelings like he did to survive combat, begins drinking/drugging, and finally falls apart.

    Eventually, he is found dead.

    I may be off target, but I don't think so. That's why I would agree with 120mm that the suicide rate maybe a symptom of a larger mental health phenomena.

    To cope, the Big Army will have to have radical acceptance of the real issue- seeing it for what it is not what we wish it to be. Moreover, it will take a comprehensive, holistic solution from chaplains, commanders, and the mental health specialist.

    It can be done. I suppose that it must be done.

    That's my 2 cents.

    v/r

    Mike

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    Quote Originally Posted by MikeF View Post
    Schmedlap precisely describes the distinction between civilian and military thought; however, psychologists would suggest that both mentalities are potentially unnerving and unbalancing. They use the example of the victim versus the survivor. The victim is helpless to his/her circumstance. The survivor is determined to make it right. Neither one is healthy.
    Not to detract from Mike's post - very good input - but I realize that the point I intended to make is different from the one that I conveyed.

    In the civilian world, saying that something is so bad that one is going to "kill myself" is just common hyperbole. In the Army, we were conditioned to not take such statements lightly. We didn't say them. One of the reasons for this was so that if someone truly was pondering suicide and they were to say something along the lines of "I'm going to kill myself" then it would not be taken as mere common hyperbole because we all knew that it was a warning sign and needed to be reported. It would be taken seriously. Generally, only someone truly pondering suicide would utter such a statement and it became both easier to spot and more likely to be reported. I never heard anyone say such a thing in the Army - and, coincidentally, no unit that I was in had any suicides - and I attribute the fact that I never heard such a phrase uttered directly to the "suicide awareness" programs. My point is that suicide awareness is not just some time-wasting, mandatory briefing that we sit through like EO, racial diversity, or sexual harassment (Does a multi-ethnic, all-male infantry unit really need these? I don't think so.) It serves a specific function and accomplishes that function, in my opinion, with a relatively small time commitment.

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    Default My own stab at a middle ground

    Quote Originally Posted by 120mm View Post
    And suicide is a symptom, not a cause. But by consistently treating the symptom, we can receive absolution for not solving the cause.
    I agree with Schmedlap (and others) but I can sense where 120mm is coming from. For own part, the frustration comes from the way our society - in this day and age - tends to deal with problems like this, from a therapeutic mindset, that tends to look at the issues in superficial, modish ways, like seeing it as a lack of self-esteem, and so forth. I think this kind of thing tends to overlook the deep cause.

    Suicide can be caused by things like clinical depression, which goes back to a physical cause like a chemical imbalance in the brain (in which case it's a referral to the psychiatrist), or it can come from deep existential problems a soldier faces. The despair that can lead to suicide is often the result of a serious spiritual disorder, that requires grappling with a spiritual void, and that is precisely a job for the chaplain.

    So you're a chaplain Tammie, and not a social worker. How do you approach this problem from a religious standpoint? Or do you?
    He cloaked himself in a veil of impenetrable terminology.

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    Default Moderator adds

    I have re-opened this closed thread from 2009, which had 6k views, to add the next post.

    There are other threads that feature chaplains or padres, but this thread is the best place even if suicide is not an issue.
    davidbfpo

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default The role of the Padre within the Army

    Hat tip to Kings of War for introducing an officer, using an American pseudonym and the Editor in part explains:
    The institutional chaplaincy is an enduring part of the military experience, and yet it more often than not goes unconsidered or unexamined in the larger scheme of getting on with the work of an army, navy or air force. However, given the latitude and roles which chaplains can exercise, this may be a mistake. At the very least, nothing done within the military setting should be ignored, no matter how seemingly irrelevant it is to the main effort. Worse, lack of due consideration may either miss critical opportunities to use a capability better or avoid critical and damaging misuse. So, read the piece, ponder the place of the chaplain in your experience and organisation, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag.
    Link:http://kingsofwar.org.uk/2016/04/ccl...ns-on-padres/?
    davidbfpo

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