Mama Said There Would Be Days Like This

Army suicides are up according to all the statistics.  Multiple deployments in an unnecessary lengthy war on two fronts, financial worries and marital problems are just some of the reasons leading some soldiers to take their own lives.  The army has always bred a culture of “you are Army strong; therefore, you do not have problems.”  A common theme everywhere is “suck it up.”  If you do have problems, it is better to keep it to yourself.  Don’t even dream of seeking a mental health professional.  That’s pretty much a one way ticket to losing your livelihood.  In the past, admitting any kind of mental issue automatically cut you out of some professions in the army.

The army is trying to change that.  The number of soldiers shooting up their families and themselves is becoming disturbingly common.  I guess it got to be too big of a problem to sweep under the rug.  It was like the white elephant in the room that everybody talked around but never about.  Because of this, we’ve been innundated with army suicide prevention courses.  When I first joined the army, this was the army suicide prevention class:

If you need help, call this number.  It’s totally confidential but make sure you report it up the chain of command that you’re going to see a shrink because they need to know if you’re too crazy to do your job.

Seriously.  Thankfully, I’ve always been of sound body and mind, but I did get the point that if I ever should become a lunatic, I had better not tell anybody or I’d be out on the street, quick, fast and in a hurry.  A few years ago, I sat through one of the army’s old suicide prevention courses.  I was a new soldier to my unit and my new platoon sergeant approached me right after class.  He asked me if everything was okay.  I was having an issue with my civillian employer fucking around with my pay and seniority status right after AIT.  I had several emotional moments when I got a paycheck for $310 one pay period and then $235 another pay period when normally I brought home much, much more than that.  I didn’t want to tell my new sergeant all of this.  After all, I had to make that crucial first impression, so I just said, “Oh, everything’s fine, sergeant.  Don’t worry about me.  I’m not suicidal at all.”  I wasn’t; I was homicidal (not really) but I was flaming hot mad with my employer and although I really had absolutley no intention of shooting up the place, I was in the mood to cause a scene.  I was thinking more along the lines of running screaming into the building and perhaps vandalising a few things.  But a normal person would be upset if their financial status was consistently disrupted by a thoughtless employer.  What I could have used from my sergeant was some good military advice on how to handle my civillian employer–and I got it because I did wind up telling him what was going on, but not how I was feeling.  I just got the impression that nobody really cares how I feel–not in the army.

Then a new statistic report came out citing how many army suicides there had been one year, and suddenly it’s the “We care about you,” “don’t be afraid to get help,” real men get counselling,” bit, but it still felt kind of phoney to me.  I felt like it was a trap.  They wanted to lure out all the “lunatics,” get rid of them so the army suicide rate wouldn’t be so high.  If you kick these loonies out of the army and then they commit suicide, it doesn’t count as an army suicide.  Something like that.  We were subjected to these really long role playing video simulation things where we had to try and save a suicidal soldier’s life.  I’ve watched this video about four times now, and every time the whole class just sits and laughs at the actors in the story.  One story is about a young soldier whose battle buddy gets killed and then his girlfriend back home cheats on him and gives all his money to her new boyfriend.  Think of all the ribald jokes that could come out of that, and I laughed too because I thought it was so pathetic.  What genius would have a joint account with a mere girlfriend, not even a wife. 

The senior NCOs and officers tried to sternly tell us, “Take this seriously guys,” but they laughed too.  I’ve been in the army almost five years, but these guys have been in their whole lives.  They “grew up” under the old regime where Army Strong, me big man have no feelings!  You can’t just “turn off” what you’ve had on all your whole career.  It’s an adjustment.  Some of us are not taking it as seriously as we ought.

Last week, someone in my unit committed suicide.  I have heard some rumours as to why he might have, and they’re irrelevant for this particular blog.  However, I feel like he was another victim of the system.  Whatever his problems were, nobody really paid enough attention to notice that he was even having problems.  Everybody is always wrapped up in their own problems, added to the fact that the culture of the army is designed to have you believe that you don’t have problems and if you do, you’re a loser. 

I’m in the National Guard so our army “lifestyle” is a little bit different than those who are active duty.  We see each other once a month, some of us more.  Some of us actually hang out; because of our particular job, some of us in my unit actually work with each other in our civillian jobs.  But that doesn’t override rank, which controls everything once we get in uniform.  Despite the fact that I am of the age of some of the senior NCOs, I’m a junior soldier and never the twain should meet.  To my fellow junior soldiers I’m seen in a parental light because I am way older than they are.  Some of them feel comfortable talking to me on a more intimate level, and I’m glad that I can be helpful where I can, even if I am a bit jaded and know-it-all.  But when it comes to the soldiers who outrank me, for them I can do nothing.  If I hear strange things that give me pause, there’s nothing I can do.  I can’t go up to an E7 and say, “Are you all right?  You know, if ever need to talk….”  I also don’t feel comfortable going up to another E7 and telling him, “You know that E7 over there doesn’t seem himself.”  It’s kind of like when you were a kid, “this is grown folks business.”  Although this soldier who died outranks me, I feel like I let him down.  I heard some random things, but I never paid attention too closely because of our rank.  If one of my fellow junior soldiers had said some of those things, I would have easily taken them to task and then got to the root of the problem.  With him, I just shrugged and walked off, put it in the back of my mind only to glaringly recall it as soon as I got that phone call.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and now there is very little point in trying to figure out what we could have done to prevent this tragedy.  We can only move forward to ensure that it does not happen again.  If things continue on in the same vein, I do not see how this is possible; however, we must put forth some effort, particularly as individuals.  The army as a whole is too large, too bogged down by tradition and bureaucracy to be effective.  We must take it upon ourselves to “doctor” each other.  These are depressing times.  Not only are we at war, getting deployed every five minutes, but the economy is rough.  People have lost their jobs, having trouble finding new jobs.  We have to be vigilant as to how our fellow soldiers are feeling.

I always say that I do not care about others, and in general I don’t, but life is very precious and not meant to be wasted, particularly on things outside our control.  I look at everything as temporary.  If your marriage sucks, get a divorce.  You hate your kids, put them up for adoption.  Hate your job, quit.  If you’re finances are out of order and you’re going under, just let it happen, recover and regroup.  You can always change your mind again.  Suddenly you love your wife/husband, get married again.  You want your kids back, go get them.  If you decide you do like that job, apply again.  Everything is so temporary.  But life, once it’s gone, it’s gone.  There’s no coming back from that. 

If you are in the army and you’re feeling distressed:

Below are a few links and telephone numbers for Crisis Intervention Resources.  The Army Suicide Prevention Office is not a crisis center and does not provide counseling services. If you are feeling distressed or hopeless, thinking about death or wanting to die, or, if you are concerned about someone who may be suicidal, please contact Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647.    

Crisis Intervention Resources

Veterans Hotline & Online Chat Are you a veteran in emotional distress? Please call 1-800-273-TALK and press 1 to be routed to the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline. ORVeterans chat live with a counselor. 

It may sound all kinds of corny, but you really aren’t alone.  And nothing is as bad as all that.

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