Suicide Is Anything but Painless

Military suicides rise amid limited mental and physical care for soldiers and veterans.

Rebecca Burns

Police offices arrest activists attempting to break into NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 1. (John Thys/Getty Images)

Before 21 year-old Army infantry­man Der­rick Kirk­land hanged him­self in his bar­racks in March 2010, he had attempt­ed to take his life three times. After try­ing to com­mit sui­cide twice while serv­ing in Iraq, he was sent to the Madi­gan Army Med­ical Cen­ter (MAMC) at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), locat­ed out­side Olympia, Wash. Doc­tors pro­nounced him to be at low to mod­er­ate” risk for self-injury and returned him to his unit, where his com­man­ders report­ed­ly called him a cow­ard” and a piece of shit.”

As U.S. wars over­seas drag on, sto­ries like Kirkland’s have become increas­ing­ly com­mon. Pen­ta­gon data released in June revealed that so far in 2012, near­ly one active duty sol­dier has com­mit­ted sui­cide each day, more than the num­ber who have died in com­bat in Afghanistan. The rate is worse among vet­er­ans, with about 6,500 sui­cides logged each year.

As vet­er­ans and ser­vice mem­bers orga­nize to demand men­tal health­care, many also seek to chal­lenge the wars that have neces­si­tat­ed return­ing trau­ma­tized troops to bat­tle. The sui­cide epi­dem­ic proves that the mil­i­tary and the U.S. gov­ern­ment are com­plete­ly inca­pable of car­ing for us when we get home from the war,” says Mike Prys­ner, an Iraq war vet and co-founder of the anti-war orga­ni­za­tion March For­ward. So we should just not go to begin with.”

In June, March For­ward launched a cam­paign to pro­vide resources and legal sup­port to sol­diers resist­ing deploy­ment to Afghanistan, includ­ing both those apply­ing for con­sci­en­tious objec­tor sta­tus and those who have gone AWOL. One such sol­dier is Sgt. Brook Thomas Lind­sey, who was also sta­tioned at JBLM and who fled the base in March 2012. He asserts that he was being returned to duty despite hav­ing repeat­ed­ly request­ed help for sui­ci­dal impuls­es. Lind­sey turned him­self into mil­i­tary police vol­un­tar­i­ly in June, and now report­ed­ly faces dis­hon­or­able dis­charge and up to a year in prison. (JBLM did not respond to a request for com­ment on Lindsey’s case.)

Activist vet­er­ans say that in addi­tion to ignor­ing trau­ma in order to keep sol­diers deploy­able, the mil­i­tary com­pro­mis­es med­ical care for sol­diers in an effort to down­play the enor­mous costs of the wars. In March, inves­ti­ga­tors dis­cov­ered that hos­pi­tal offi­cials at JBLM had rec­om­mend­ed that psy­chi­a­trists lim­it PTSD diag­noses, which enti­tle sol­diers to cer­tain care and ben­e­fits upon retire­ment, in order to con­trol costs to tax­pay­ers. In response, the Army has launched a review of behav­ioral health eval­u­a­tions since 2001 at all of its med­ical facilities.

Once sol­diers are dis­charged from the mil­i­tary, they enter an equal­ly dys­func­tion­al sys­tem. Under fed­er­al law, vet­er­ans are enti­tled to five years of med­ical care, but the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs faces a back­log of 897,000 dis­abil­i­ty claims. 

Mag­gie Mar­tin, a field orga­niz­er with Iraq Vet­er­ans Against the War (IVAW), says that sol­diers who have been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed (as many as 1 in 3 women in the mil­i­tary) face enor­mous insti­tu­tion­al and cul­tur­al obsta­cles in access­ing care. Even after she began work­ing with IVAW, Mar­tin says that she didn’t acknowl­edge for sev­er­al years that she was her­self a sur­vivor of a sex­u­al assault that occurred dur­ing her last deploy­ment to Iraq because she was so ingrained in the sys­tem and the stigma.”

As part of IVAW’s nation­wide Oper­a­tion Recov­ery” cam­paign, Mar­tin is now orga­niz­ing at Fort Hood, where sui­cide rates are among the high­est in the coun­try. She’s col­lect­ing tes­ti­mo­ny from sol­diers with trau­mat­ic injuries in order to pres­sure com­man­ders at the base to stop over­rid­ing the med­ical treat­ment rec­om­men­da­tions that sol­diers receive from their doctors.

The climb­ing rate of mil­i­tary sui­cides has been explained in mul­ti­ple ways, but one con­tro­ver­sial school of thought holds that many sol­diers suf­fer from moral injury,” caused by guilt and shame at wit­ness­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in some­thing that vio­lat­ed their moral or reli­gious principles.

Mar­tin believes that acknowl­edg­ing the com­plex­i­ty of a veteran’s posi­tion is cen­tral to build­ing a viable anti-war movement.

It’s impor­tant to remind peo­ple that we’re not heroes com­plete­ly, and we’re not vic­tims com­plete­ly,” says Mar­tin, who was among the 50 mem­bers of IVAW to return medals award­ed to her as part of a protest dur­ing the NATO sum­mit in Chica­go in May. We’re humans who were sub­ject­ed to con­di­tions where we became per­pe­tra­tors, and now we want to acknowl­edge the full spec­trum of what that means in terms of our own trau­ma and the trau­ma we inflict­ed on others.”

Watch a Chica­go Tri­bune video about Antho­ny Wag­n­er, who suf­fered from post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der caused by his stint in Iraq and died of a sus­pect­ed hero­in over­dose in November:

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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