Monday, May 30, 2011
Memorial Day 2011: Honouring those who fall by their own hand
May 30 is Memorial Day in the US. Last year, I did a more traditional style Memorial Day post, "Happy Memorial Day!". This year, I wanted to make special mention of those who die in battle or at the battle front, but by their own hand. Some soldiers succumb to war in the form of a mental illness that leads to their suicide. This illness may be in the form of battle fatigue, acute or post traumatic stress disorder, depression, or addiction from medicating themselves through the war.
Such suicides have always existed, whether recognized or described as such. It is a common place of psychiatry that suicide rates drop during wartime. There are a number of theories about why, including a greater sense of purpose in life, an urgency about daily living, and the less positive but realistic facts that it is a lot easier to hide a suicide attempt during war, and a lot easier to successfully complete a suicide attempt. Excessive risk taking in battle, letting the enemy assist in one's suicide, or using an available firearm on oneself during battle, are covered by the fog of war.
The US military has been forced to recognize and deal with suicide as a major problem among soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, given that the numbers have climbed each year. While still deemed to be below age and gender matched numbers in the general population, the rates are high and climbing.
As a result, there have been active campaigns to make suicide prevention and detection of soldiers at risk a part of the training for leaders and buddies in the field. There have also been active campaigns to de-stigmatize mental health issues and encourage those who are suffering to reach out for help. Support for families has been crucial to reduce the stresses--emotional, physical, financial--on families and on the soldiers themselves. One problem that has been a major factor in suicidality during these 2 wars has been the length of deployments, the length of time in battle, insufficient time between stints, and the back door draft--not letting soldiers out when their time is served.These are all a result of insufficient personnel to wage the wars that have been declared for them.
To its credit, the US Department of Defense did its own research, which contradicted the findings of the US Army which preferred to analyze suicide as a moral failing on the part of a person who was weak, rather than a systemic failing of a soldier in medical difficulty. The Department of Defense has also recognized the challenges of transition periods for soldiers and returning personnel, along with their families and loved ones. It further acknowledges the role of insufficient mental health resources for active and discharged service personnel in suicidality.
Suicide is never a pleasant topic, and there are special difficulties for those who grieve the military personnel who have died by their own hand. Stigma against mental illness and suicide prevail in society, and perhaps even more in the military. Yet, these soldiers have fallen to the trials of war as surely as any other.
This year, I thought it important to remember those who have fallen in battle through suicide, and those whose mental battle scars wouldn't heal and who succumbed later. Their graves and coffins look the same as all others.
*In memory of Bombardier Karl Manning, 31, 5e Régiment d’artillerie légère du Canada, serving with the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment Battle Group, died in Zangabad Outpost, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2011, possibly by suicide.