Last week, Fort Campbell, an Army post on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, shut down for three days. This "stand-down" was a direct result of the high number of suicides Fort Campbell has experienced so far in 2009. Eleven soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell died by suicide this year. As of April of this year, the Army has seen 64 active-duty soldiers die by suicide, as compared with 113 in all of 2008.
The post is home to the 101st Airborne Division, members of which have served at least three tours of duty in Iraq and perhaps additional tours in Afghanistan.
The response of the leadership at Fort Campbell is a key part of preventing suicide. The proven-effective Air Force Suicide Prevention Program recognizes the crucial role of military leadership in changing the culture around help-seeking. So, the stand-down training event was a good first step in recognizing that suicide is a problem in the Fort Campbell community and talking publicly about the resources for and importance of seeking help.
As I have read multiple media reports related to Fort Campbell's response to the rash of suicides, one story in particular has stood out for me. Mary Clare Lindberg is the mother of Army Sergeant Ben Miller, who took his life when he was home on leave from Iraq last year. She has spoken with several media outlets about her trip to Fort Campbell this past Memorial Day, to be at the post where her son served and meet his fellow soldiers.
The part of Ben Miller's story that has stuck with me is that upon visiting the memorial for fallen soldiers at Fort Campbell, Mary Clare discovered that because Ben did not die in combat, his name was not on the memorial.
Mary Clare feels that her son's death was combat-related. As she and others have said, putting Ben's name and the names of other soldiers who have died by suicide on war memorials acknowledges that something significant is happening in the Army. But, does this kind of memorializing do anything to prevent suicide?
I wrestled with my responses to this part of Ben Miller's story. Generally, memorializing people who die by suicide is not advised. We don't want to draw attention to their deaths, but celebrate the lives that were lost. At the same time, I think I may agree with Ben's mother - his death was combat-related, possibly connected to a trauma response to multiple deployments, the impending possibility of additional deployments, witnessing or playing a role in the deaths of Iraqi children, or returning to a home community which did not understand his wartime experiences.
Looking at the bigger picture of the increase in military suicides, I think there may be some unique aspects to the current situation that may position us, as preventionists, to create new responses that fit this place and time. Mary Clare asks a profound question: Are we losing more soldiers to combat-related suicide than to actual combat? If so, I ask, do those of us who care about suicide prevention need to think differently about issues such as memorializing?
Some questions are the same no matter how the situation may have changed. What ways can we, in our communities, support returning soldiers so that they don't feel as alienated and isolated? And, what ways can the Army and other branches of the military continue to promote help-seeking to soldiers?
Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved