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Military suicides on the rise

by Erin Roach

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—The number of people in the U.S. military who have committed suicide has increased dramatically in recent years, with the Army alone battling a suicide rate that doubled between 2005-2009.

At Fort Hood in Texas, officials have documented 14 confirmed suicides and six suspected suicides among soldiers so far this year, including four suspected suicides during one weekend at the end of September. Fort Hood had 11 suicides last year and 14 total in 2008.

Sara Horn, a military wife who founded a support network called Wives of Faith, said the suicides are directly related to a problem of the heart.

“When the heart has no hope, it’s very hard to see a future. This should serve only as one more wake-up call, one more plea to our local churches and believers to reach out to our military and their families,” Horn said. “We know the hope we have in Jesus. We have to share that hope with others.”

More than 1,000 troops have killed themselves during the past five years, driving the Army suicide rate above the civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better as more soldiers return from war.

“Things that have been pent up, or packed in, or basically suppressed or sucked up—whatever term you want to use—we’re going to start to see that as well,” Mullen said, according to Time magazine Sept. 30.

An independent report ordered by Congress found the Pentagon’s suicide prevention efforts inadequate, with fewer soldiers dying in combat than by their own actions, including suicides and accidental deaths brought on by high-risk behavior.

The report, released in July, said the “hidden wounds of war”—the psychological and emotional injuries—have placed unprecedented demands on the Armed Forces and military families. While the military has increased efforts to curb suicides, the response has lacked the coordination necessary for sustained success, the task force found.

Randy Wallace, pastor of Killeen, Texas, First, near Fort Hood, said that while the military has a responsibility to help at-risk soldiers, many times prevention hinges on whether a soldier asks for help.

“My personal perspective is that we’ve asked too much of these people. We’ve run them through multiple deployments, and things wear out and they break, including people,” Wallace said.

While Killeen, First ministers to those soldiers and their families who come to the church seeking assistance, Wallace said he finds it difficult to reach others who aren’t asking for help because of the restricted access to the Army post. Also, for those who have already committed suicide, their families may not be within reach.
“The people who are grieving are probably not in Killeen. It’s probably a hometown somewhere,” Wallace said. “So the geography of the death does not necessarily relate to that of the grief.”

David Mullis, a chaplaincy coordinator for the North American Mission Board, said pastors need to be prepared to answer questions such as, “How could God love me when I have done this or seen this?” and “Where is God when . . .?” He emphasized the need to watch for warning signs.

“If a parishioner sits down and says, ‘I’m having sleepless nights’ or they talk about recurring dreams of the trauma that they saw in war, they begin to talk about ‘I can’t stop drinking’ or ‘Things are going bad at home. I can’t relate to my wife or my children,’ ‘I come home from work and I go straight to bed,’ these are all indicators that there’s probably a combat operational stress situation happening,” Mullis said. “When these are not paid attention to, what does a person do when they’re hopeless? They may say, ‘Well, I’ll end it all.’”
Horn, of Wives of Faith, agreed with Mullen’s prediction that as more troops come home, more problems will occur.

“The high tempo of deployment our military and their families have faced has created a cycle of stress and other issues in marriages and the home that couples and families have had no time or opportunity to deal with while their service members have been continually leaving for war,” she said, adding that when the troops return home, “churches need to be there to help” address any problems that evolved during deployment.

Churches should not assume that there are no military families in their area if they don’t live near a military installation, Horn said. National Guard and Army Reserve families live in most communities, and they have the least access to resources for military families even as they are being deployed as consistently as active duty soldiers.

“Do a survey in your community, hold a dinner and invite every military family who wants to come to come. Let them know you’re there to support them, not just in word, but in action,” Horn said. “Don’t do this just at scheduled patriotic holidays, though. Freedom doesn’t happen just on July 4.”

Churches in military communities need to resist the temptation to assume another church is already ministering to families, Horn stressed, and each church needs to invest in the lives of military families, even if those families will only be in the community for a short time.

Erin Roach is a writer for Baptist Press

Author: Staff

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  • Gary Capshaw

    The problem for the soldier, and the returning Veteran, is that he doesn’t recognize his need for help so he is unlikely to ask for it. It has little to do with appearing weak or public embarrassment.

    The emotional distancing, where his mind finds refuge during combat, rapidly becomes normal and unremarkable in war. His daily routine of death and dismemberment, and his reaction to it, becomes as mundane and commonplace for him as a trip to the store for a jug of milk is for you. How often do you ruminate on the psychological fallout of your daily life? I’d guess not much. Well, neither does the soldier. It is what it is and he’s comfortable in his new skin and, in fact, rarely even recognizes that he’s undergone a metamorphasis. Like the butterfly which emerges from the cocoon, the transition from feeling, loving human being to cold, unemotional killer is a process which does not leave a memory of the cocoon. The butterfly is a butterfly, not a former larvae; the soldier is a soldier, not a former civilian.

    So long as he stays in that environment, he’s usually fine. It’s when he’s removed from it that trouble starts. No longer surrounded by his everyday support group, he no longer fits, is no longer a part of something which has become very important to him, though he may not even recognize that. Left adrift in what is now a strange and alien world, peopled by those with whom he no longer has much in common, he’s alone and confused. In his eyes, everything has changed but him. The result of that is almost invaribly heavy drinking or drug use, inappropriate violent responses to non-threatening events, relationship problems and/or suicide.

    If you think things are bad now, just wait. Over the next 20 or 30 years, it will get worse for them, though you’re not likely to hear about it. They will suffer in their individual, personal hell for the rest of their lives. Most will function on the surface just fine, but inside they’ll forever be different and prone to what is called anti-social behaviors here at home, behaviors which were not only accepted in the war zone, but actually necessary for survival.

    So..is the church willing to become involved in that? Are we able to identify those in need of what only Jesus Christ can offer? Do we have access to them? Do they have access to us? Do they even know what their needs are?

    It’s easy to have the support and help they need when they walk through the front door of the church seeking something. It’s a far different matter when they don’t or, worse, don’t even recognize they have a problem and, I submit, that will be the far more common scenario.

    How does the church address that?

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