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