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Losing the war: Soldier stories
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"I understand we're in the business of manning up. We're in the business of going and fighting our country's battles," said an engineer specialist whose battalion has experienced four suicides in the past year alone. "But everybody isn't John Wayne. You can't just lose a friend, make a sign of the cross and keep moving."
His unit acknowledged each event with a week of suicide prevention classes and little else, he said. In each case, many soldiers didn't know that a suicide had occurred until they found themselves in front of a familiar PowerPoint presentation.
The first came last summer when a private first class took his own life as his marriage was breaking down. Next was a sergeant, who died two weeks after reporting that she had been raped by a fellow soldier.
In August, another took his life following an Article 15 case into his adulterous relationship. And the fourth was a specialist in early September.
"It's a damn shame that I lost a real good friend, but all the way over in 1st Brigade, do you know what her death signifies? A week of classes," the engineer specialist said.
He can't speak to whether his battalion mates sought help from the post's behavioral health centers because the culture, he said, requires that soldiers keep those issues to themselves. However, a long history of clinical depression has given him plenty of firsthand experience in the Army's mental health care apparatus.
After returning from a deployment to Afghanistan last year, the specialist learned that a friend of his had passed away while he was overseas. The news hit him hard, and the combination of grief and the stress of redeployment prompted him to seek help.
The counseling stopped as soon as he admitted to having suicidal thoughts, he said.
"Behavioral health wanted to make sure I didn't off myself," he said. "They didn't care that I was in mourning. They just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to blow my brains out."
He said they put him on medication, ran a risk assessment test and sent him on his way. Since then, he's learned to deal with his stress in other ways. Sometimes he talks to his wife about what's going on. Other times he drives to a quiet area and takes a few minutes to cry and smoke a cigarette.
He also feels comfortable speaking vaguely to the E-4s and below in his unit, but he'd never go to a sergeant with a personal problem.
"It's a sign of weakness with the junior [noncommissioned officers]," he said. "They don't want you to have problems because it makes them look bad."
He points specifically to the sergeants he deals with as the reason why so many soldiers don't get help or don't feel comfortable talking to their leadership. In fact, there's something of a crackdown happening in his unit on going to behavioral health without first talking to an NCO, but the leadership isn't any more approachable.
"They say, ‘If we don't know about a problem, then you don't have one,'" he said. "If everybody was encouraged to go, maybe it would be different. But, hell, we're discouraged from going to the aid station, let alone behavioral health."
He reached out to his lieutenant colonel and first sergeant but said the disconnect is between lower enlisted guys and the leaders they deal with daily.
"They know a whole lot about yelling and how to look good and making quota, but they have no earthly idea how to lead," he said.
For him, it's the Army's attitude toward emotional health that has to change if there's to be any change in the suicide rate.
"I feel like sometimes that the Army spends so much time on appearances and not a damn bit of time on the actual people who do this job," he said.
And, he warned, things are only going to get worse as the war in Afghanistan winds down. Between a return to daily life at home and fears about job security as the Army scales back its numbers, being away from it all for a year at a time sounds like a relief.
"When you're deployed, unless you're an infantryman out there fighting every day, there's less stress in a war zone," he said. "The bulls--- standards that they have when you're in garrison do not exist in Afghanistan, because all you have to deal with at the time is the job."
Ultimately, his hope is worn down to almost nothing. He said that 11 years of war and a generation of quickly promoted, unfit sergeants have created this Army, and "the guys with the stars on their shirts don't want to hear it."
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