On his army blog of January 19, the commanding general of Fort Bliss (Texas), Major General Dana Pittard, wrote regarding members of the military who commit suicide: “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”
According to the National Journal, “Pittard’s blunt comments about suicide have raised eyebrows throughout the military. . . . Suicide-prevention experts believe that Pittard’s blog posting has already conveyed precisely the wrong message to emotionally fragile troops.
“In the words of Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, an organization that matches troops with civilian mental-health providers: ‘Soldiers who are thinking about suicide can’t do what the general says: They can’t suck it up, they can’t let it go, they can’t just move on. They’re not acting out of selfishness; they’re acting because they believe they’ve become a burden to their loved ones and can only relieve that burden by taking their own lives. . . . His statement — whatever motivated it — can do little good for those who are already on the edge.’”
Major General Pittard did not tell the troops to suck it up, let it go, and move on. He said that suicide is a selfish act that hurts others around them in order to relieve their own pain. He told his troops they have to deal with their problems.
What on Earth is wrong with that? Dealing with their problem can mean any one of the dozens of things that mental health providers want to provide. But if MG Pittard's salvo dented the prevailing wisdom of not confronting troops with the basic selfishness of suicide and their failure to seek appropriate help to get better, doesn't the suicide problem indicate that the prevailing wisdom isn't working.
Or is treating soldiers like helpless victims meant to make the mental health professionals feel good about all the soft niceness they bestow the poor soldiers before they exit this world by their own hand? Isn't making the soldiers better the mission? What would the children of that dead soldier prefer?
Soldiers are taught that the mission comes first. Teach them that their basic mission is to be ready to be a soldier. And committing suicide fails on that mission--in addition to devastating those who love them. And even if they believe they have no loved ones, committing suicide might encourage another already on the edge to just give up, too. We should have compassion for these soldiers who lived through war and experienced things I can never even pretend to understand. But we should treat them as soldiers who are an asset who must seek the help they need to be effective soldiers--and effective parents and spouses, while they are at it. As Praeger concludes:
If the general’s comments lead to one less suicide, those comments embodied true compassion. Moreover, the first purpose of the military is to produce men who will be able to better fight and win wars against the least compassionate people on earth. And transforming generals into therapists will not accomplish that.
And it is a problem and the non-Pittard way of dealing with the troops doesn't really seem to be working:
Suicides are surging among America's troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation's decade of war.
The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.
As we wind down and there is less stress on the troops, suicides go up. This certainly fits with many things I've read over the decades about troops in intense, prolonged combat who find themselves suddenly at peace and then commit suicide or die in reckless acts. I believe it was called "le cafard." For a screen treatment, see the final episode of Band of Brothers. The traditional means of combating this was to keep the troops busy. Don't let them wallow or give them time to suddenly think about what they've been through. They need time to process what they survived.
Major General Pittard remains to deal with the horrible debris that the suicide of one of his soldiers will leave behind. I don't see that he did anything wrong. He didn't dismiss the problem by telling the troops to "man up" and deal with it. He told them to deal with their problem and he told them that if they don't deal with their problem, they'll hurt those they love. For this the general is condemned?