Reflections on Veteran Suicide, Veteran Resilience and Tribe

Re-focusing on resilience provides critical insights

Posted Oct 15, 2016

As a front line mental health psychologist with a caseload of several hundred Veterans, I literally stay up nights trying to figure out how to intervene when suicide might be prevented. I am so tired of hearing statistics about how many veterans commit suicide - whether it is 22 or 20 a day. From my perspective, one suicide that could have been prevented is one suicide too many. And when I zoom out from these endlessly-trumpeted statistics, it occurs to me that what should be remarkable to all of us is that combat military service members can be so resilient in deplorable conditions for so long.

One thing that the military does, from boot camp on, is to create profound interdependence and a different level of trust than anything most people have ever experienced before. The situations that are orchestrated from the time of initial training through all forms of military deployment create the kind of group cohesion that life previous to the military often does not come close to creating. Even for people in tight knit families, the bonds that form between military service members are at an entirely different level, especially for those who are combat trained who must rely on each other to survive. One’s fire team becomes one’s family. And for people with traumatic family of origin experiences, assuming the military unit is a healthy one, the military can offer the first sense of family they have ever experienced.

Consider the Korengal Valley, a remote outpost in Afghanistan where an Army unit lived together in a filthy hole in the ground for months on end, clothes rotting off their bodies, the endless boredom punctuated by unpredictable firefights. Watch either of Sebastian Junger’s poignant documentaries and you will see that the trust these soldiers develop (I actually think we need to use the words “love” and “intimacy” with no sexual meaning intended) are cited as reasons that these men later think back wistfully on their time in these places and tell us convincingly that they would go back there at a moment’s notice if given the choice. The fact that suicide is not a prevalent concern in places like the Korengal Valley speaks to the strength of the attachments between those who serve together. The extremity of the situation produces that level of trust and we respond as fellow humans by creating a tribe to shelter us from the darkness without and within.  

As a society, we continue to make the mistake of thinking that individual outcomes are mainly a product of individual resilience factors. Perhaps it is tempting to lay the responsibility at the feet of the individual because that gives us more of a sense of perceived control (or lessened personal responsibility?) Individual resilience alone is not the model of what the military creates and it is not what we should emphasize for many who come out of the military.

To learn to be seamlessly interdependent is to reach the summit of our human potential – it is not a sign of weakness. The lifeblood of the most elite members of the forces is the trust and love between those who would lay their lives down for each other. In my observation, this is the protective factor that buffers against despair and disconnection in the most extreme situations, the most challenging of which may be the period after discharge from the military.

After discharge, civilians, who often display an ignorant approach to Veterans issues, who may ask intrusive questions, and demonstrate a mind boggling tendency to focus on shallow matters, may become pervasive, constant triggers to veterans following military discharge. Rather than continuing to approach veterans with fear, judgment or hero worship (all of which further compound alienation from community), we need to receive them back into community, honor the tribe from which they come and present ourselves as capable of holding trust.

Along these lines, as a civilian mental health provider, my desire is that my patients would come to see me as someone with the same heart as the medics they came to trust in the military. As long as our military service members feel that they are members of a functional tribe comprised of those who have each others' backs, they seem to be buffered against the tunnel of despair that emerges when they become isolated. After seven years in the trenches, it is clear to me that it is the bond that motivates people. This bond of love and trust then is what needs to be front and center in the battle to save the lives of Veterans. 

Bottom line: Ultimately, trauma may not be the that thing catalyzes despair but rather the combination of trauma with gaping attachment wounds that service members feel when they separate from the tribe that had their back during their time in service.