Numerous news reports bring to light the continued growing suicide problem in the U.S. Army. 2006 numbers topped 2005, 2007 topped 2006 and so on. The trend is continuing all the way through 2010.
According to an NPR report “Army Vice Chief Of Staff Peter Chiarelli says that commanders on the ground have been too busy fighting wars to think about their troops’ psychological wellbeing.” In my opinion, based on my two tours in Iraq as a Battalion Chaplain, General Chairelli’s assessment is accurate.
During OIF 05-07 I served as the chaplain for the 1st Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Hood, TX. The Battalion was blessed with an excellent command team. The Battalion Commander, LTC John Cross, and Command Sergeant Major Larry Seaman cared greatly for each Soldier, balancing skillfully the needs of the mission and the needs of the individual. LTC Cross created an environment in which Soldiers emotional and spiritual needs could be addressed He also created an environment in which a chaplain could operate to his/her fullest capacity.
We made it through many difficult times. Challenging missions, death and injury of our comrades, expecting the unexpected all presented opportunities and stretched resources. But we rose to the challenge. Our mission set, although in line with then established Army doctrine, exceeded what other STBs were accomplishing and rivaled that of larger traditional combat units. We accomplished more then anyone thought possible.
Why is this significant? We used all our Soldiers to accomplish sustained and regular combat missions. Cooks, mechanics, signal, and others traditionally though of as “Combat Support” were trained and used to fulfill any role required. The Battalion accomplish successfully both the Combat Support role and Combat Operations role given by the higher command. It stretched each Soldier and required a command that closely monitored how each Soldier was coping. It required a command that was flexible and cared about the needs of its individuals above the need for “success.”
Perhaps more importantly, in an Army environment of high suicides we lost none to suicide. Our Brigade Combat Team lost nine (9) to suicide during the same period (number may vary depending on the actual dates considered). This one BCT accounted for approximately 1/3 of all Soldier suicides in Iraq during 2006 (27 Soldier suicides). To put it in perspective, 1BCT had about 4,500 Soldiers of the over 135,000 serving in Iraq at the time.
A unit in this same brigade situation with zero suicides deserves consideration. In this section we will not focus on how other units conducted business. Rather we will consider how 1STB dealt with difficult situations and hurting Soldiers.
As the Battalion chaplain I spent countless hours counseling the Soldiers of the 1st STB. Our Soldiers faced the same types of problems common to deployment with some of the problems exacerbated by the intense combat centric mission set; yet we had no suicides. Why?
Perhaps there is no single answer. Nevertheless, as one who joined my Soldiers in their struggles, I experienced the response of the command relating to individual emotional struggles, workplace relationship issues and the strain of a difficult mission set.
First, the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major, cared greatly for each member of the command. Second, when problems were brought to their attention they listened and acted in the best interest of the safety of the Soldier. They encouraged my participation in operations and listened to my observations. Third, the command encouraged all its officers to be engaged in the missions, the chaplain was no exception. With that participation the command listened to the observations as the the well-being of each section and their leadership.
Some expressed a concern that if they allowed people to leave the theater of operation for serious mental health care there would be a excessive fraudulent attempt to abuse the system. The 1STB leadership, however, decided to treat each individual completely separately. LTC Cross was aware of the potential for abuse and decided each situation individually accepting the risk of the potential abuse of the system. 1STB’s rate for removing Soldiers from combat was not significantly different from other units in the brigade.
Part 2 will consider further the affect leadership attitudes and priorities have on Soldier well-being as well as look at specific actions taken in the unit to address and mitigate concerns. Part 3 will consider an integrated approach to address this difficult and concerning trend.