When I retired from federal military service, I burned my white gloves.
Perhaps the most difficult duty I ever performed in uniform was the responsibility of presenting the folded Stars and Stripes to a fallen soldier’s next of kin. It was the only time I ever wore white gloves during my career, and I hated them every time I peeled them off.
Each time I offered the tightly folded American flag to a grief-stricken wife, mother or partner, and rose to salute, there was a moment of incredibly powerful, almost electric, energy. It was never more so than when I saw the shock and deep pain in the eyes of people who grieved for those who died by their own hand. No compassionate human being within the blast radius of that agony could fail to be touched by it or share it.
Mystery of Military Suicide
After every suicide, I asked myself, “Why?”
There was no pattern, no rhyme or reason. They were women and men, young and middle-aged, married and single. Some had completed many combat deployments, some had never left the United States. The only common denominator was they were soldiers and warriors.
We know soldiers commit suicide at a higher rate than the general population. According to a September DoD report, in 2020, active-duty soldiers committed suicide at a rate of 36.4 per 100,000. The Centers for Disease Control reports the 2020 suicide rate for the U.S. population at large was 13.5 per 100,000.
Why do so many members of the military take their own lives? This is particularly paradoxical because soldiers are fit and healthy, and most military training focuses on preserving our lives and those of our comrades in highly lethal environments. Although there have been many studies about the causes of military suicide, none have been conclusive.
We know that protective factors, like strong family bonds, physical fitness, adequate sleep and access to counseling increase resistance to suicide. The World Health Organization also indicates that living in “a safe, supportive environment” is important for suicide prevention.
The stark reality is that military duty doesn’t support protective factors very well. The demands of national security take soldiers away from family and friends for long periods of time. Combat and peacekeeping operations produce extreme stress levels and disrupt regular patterns of eating and sleeping. The military will never be able to promise a “safe, supportive environment” for soldiers at all times. While chaplains and behavioral health personnel may work hard to be available, many soldiers still believe that only the weak seek out help. This reveals deeper, more fundamental concerns.
I believe warrior culture carries the seeds of suicide.
Most of us enlisted in the military while we were still teenagers or very young adults. We were impressionable, idealistic, romantic, patriotic and invincible. None of us were people who wanted to play it safe, be comfortable and sit on a couch.
After the crucible of basic training, we emerged as warriors. We saw ourselves as morally superior “good guys” who were empowered to defend the innocent and protect freedom wherever we were sent. We were proud of our toughness and new combat skills, which may have led to a few bar fights. Many of us identified with the gunslinger, tough guy, “John Wayne” ideal of the self-reliant individual who could handle any challenge.
If we’re honest, we harbored fantasies of courageously vanquishing the Soviets, al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or other bad guys in the pursuit of glory. In short, we created expectations for ourselves to which no human being could ever measure up. Although most of us eventually face the reality of our own human weaknesses, the persistence of some unrealistic self-expectations may plague us into our adult years.
This inflated sense of responsibility and the high expectations we hold for ourselves as warriors make many of us resistant to seeking out counseling and susceptible to what we’ve come to understand as “moral injury.”
According to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University, New York, “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”
At first, I believed moral injury only affected soldiers who made gut-wrenching decisions in combat. Because only about 10% of soldiers participate in combat, I didn’t consider moral injury to be a widespread causal factor in military suicides. But then I thought about several incidents from my past that were also moral injuries, although they occurred outside of combat zones.
I remember the anguish of the company commander, first sergeant and attending medic after a soldier was dragged to death when his 5-ton cargo truck overturned on the highway during a convoy. I could see the unspoken question in their eyes: “How did I fail as a leader in preventing this needless death?”
I recall the intense pain of a sergeant major after he offered his sympathies to the family of one of his soldiers who had taken their life overseas. Struggling with her grief, a distraught sister shrieked at him, “You promised you’d bring everyone home safely.” He was crushed.
One of the finest NCOs with whom I ever served ended his life in a hotel room after he committed what he considered to be an unforgivable, dishonorable act in a moment of weakness.
But I believe moral injury can occur in subtler ways. How many of us have heard of a buddy’s death or serious injury in combat and thought, “Maybe I could have made a difference if I jumped in on that deployment.” Rationally, we know survivor guilt is pointless, but how often do we allow it to metastasize into moral injury?
Moral injury also takes its toll when soldiers are drawn into ambiguous noncombat missions like riot control, border duty or humanitarian assistance operations when we must implement the decisions of civilian officials that may conflict with our values. Recent suicides among members of the Texas National Guard on Southwest border duty may be a case in point.
According to DoD, 580 service members committed suicide in 2020. If any weapons system, vehicle or training exercise resulted in nearly 600 deaths per year, how would leaders react?
Call to Action
Suicide is the greatest cause of death in the Army. This demands effective action to prevent it beyond one-day stand-downs and mandatory annual lectures that have failed to reduce the military suicide rate. We must seriously consider reframing aspects of Army culture and employing new tactics in the fight against suicide.
Here are some recommendations:
1. Get real in recruiting messages. Highlighting college tuition and enlistment bonuses may be attractive, and pitching superhero video game advertising may be seductive to teenagers. But this approach raises false expectations. Impressionable young adults who join up for adventure and glory are highly vulnerable to moral injury when suddenly confronted with life-threatening danger, tough decisions, carnage and death.
I’m not suggesting recruiters lead off by reminding young people of their mortality. However, I am recommending that recruiting messages present a balanced view of military life. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting the thrill of adventure and challenge, but recruits also must understand the full dimensions of service and sacrifice. We also should consider metrics that evaluate recruiters on quality of enlistees, rather than just enlistment numbers.
2. Make preenlistment standards and mental health screenings more stringent. There is evidence that some military suicides are caused by exacerbation of preexisting mental health conditions. We must make our preenlistment mental health screenings and standards more rigorous. To minimize or gloss over an enlistee’s mental health history eventually places soldiers and units in potential danger.
Additionally, initial entry, pre-deployment and post-deployment behavioral health screenings must become more sophisticated. Soldiers often joke, “I told the shrinks I was OK so they’d leave me alone.” There are reliable clinical tests and surveys that can detect false responses or misdirection. They should be widely used during screenings.
3. Emphasize that there’s no “I” in team. If there was a single idea that enabled me to survive over three decades in uniform, it was the reassurance that I was always surrounded by battle buddies who wouldn’t let me fall. We must emphasize the Soldiers’ Creed pillar, “I am a warrior and a member of a team,” while stressing the importance of individual accountability and personal responsibility. Although U.S. military history holds many examples of exceptional individual bravery and leadership, I’m not aware of any battle that was won single-handedly by one individual.
Suicide victims act in isolation. If they were able to reach out to share their desperation and pain with one other person, it’s probable they’d choose life—at least long enough to get help. Army culture must instill the concept that soldiers are never alone, that we always have battle buddies there for us. If soldiers internalize this belief, the chance that anyone chooses to die in isolation will be considerably reduced.
One of the most important pillars of the Warrior Ethos is “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This statement is often interpreted to mean that soldiers will never abandon a wounded buddy on the battlefield. Army leaders must reframe this fundamental commandment to mean we will never stand by and allow another soldier to fail—and that applies equally in firefights, ruck marches, substance abuse, depression and attempted suicide.
4. Train soldiers as caregivers, not victims. Few soldiers see themselves as a potential suicide victim. Because suicide prevention training sometimes devolves into preaching about what to do if soldiers personally feel suicidal, they often tune out. Instead, we should integrate signs of suicide and suicide prevention training for all soldiers as part of Combat Lifesaver and soldier basic skills.
Being prepared to save a life is more consistent with the Warrior Ethos than training to avoid becoming a victim. Most soldiers have witnessed depression, substance abuse and risk behaviors closely enough to see the relevance of suicide prevention skills. As with most training, suicide prevention is more effective when it’s decentralized to the squad level rather than presented in large formations.
5. Require commanders and senior NCOs to account for loss of life. If an officer or NCO fails to account for a weapon or if they damage equipment, they are held to account. Why, then, do we accept the loss of our soldiers without command accountability? It’s well known that quantified items on an officer or NCO evaluation report become command priorities.
I propose the officer and NCO evaluation system contain requirements that leaders report any loss of life within their units during the rating period. An explanation of circumstances should be required. Raters and senior raters would be bound to discuss human loss prevention during evaluation counseling. This standard should be applied to commanders, platoon sergeants, first sergeants and command sergeants major. No leader should be held liable for suicides, but they should be asked, “What are you doing to prevent this from happening in the future?”
6. Destigmatize mental health counseling. The sad truth is that soldiers are reluctant to seek mental health counseling and services because they fear being perceived as weak. Soldiers who seek mental health counseling must have their privacy respected, and they must be absolutely guaranteed that there will be no repercussions that affect promotion, assignment or retention. Chaplains and behavioral health specialists must be available, approachable and present in areas where troops live and operate. A chaplain or counselor who never leaves their office is useless.
The stigmatization of seeking mental health support will only subside when those who seek help are fully protected from negative consequences. Senior leaders also must lead by example and openly discuss their own experiences with counseling.
Slogans, stand-downs and lectures have failed to reduce the threat that suicide poses to our force. In fact, military suicides are occurring at their highest rate since 9/11, according to the USO. It’s high time for all of us in the Army community to fight this invisible, deadly enemy with courage, determination and resolve. Otherwise, we’re just passing it along with white gloves on.
If you or anyone you know is in crisis, reach out for help immediately. Service members and their families can contact the Veterans/Military Crisis Line by calling 800-273-8255 and pressing 1, chatting online at www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat or sending a text message to 838255.
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Brig. Gen. Paul “Greg” Smith, Massachusetts Army National Guard retired, served as dual-status commander during Superstorm Sandy and joint task force commander during the Boston Marathon bombings response. He teaches counterterrorism and leadership at colleges in Massachusetts, and has served as an instructor at the U.S. Army War College.